“Move your leg!”
Luella’s knee dug into Lavelle’s ribs, a fragile pillar supporting a mound of clammy flesh. She moved her leg to the right and, testing the limits of her flexibility, hooked her foot around the driver’s side headrest. Lavelle’s full weight pressed down on her. Without the tenuous support of her dimpled knees, it was hard to breathe lying there with his flabby mass on top of her. Despite (or perhaps because of) the lack of oxygen, she smiled. She felt like a dead frog: on her back, chin pointed toward the sky, legs curled lifeless on either side.
From day one Lavelle had all the girls at the store gravitating toward his hazel eyes and pearly smile. He was on the chunky side, but not sloppy fat. He was more like a Gerald Levert, chocolate truffle type of thick, with a Rick Ross kind of delusional swagger. Big and sexy.
Lavelle suggested this little tryst after a twelve-dollar dinner at Friday’s. It wasn’t The Signature Room or even Red Lobster, but Luella didn’t complain. She was just happy to be out with someone besides her mother, anywhere other than the beauty supply store buying weave.
She anxiously agreed to sex, but fitting both their bodies into the back seat of her rented Ford Focus was a complicated mess.
“I’m sorry,” Luella said in a short, strained breath.
His beanbag gut enveloped hers, briefly making her feel better about her ever-expanding muffin-top. His weight hadn’t been an issue earlier that night. He looked sexy in his cream button-up, the citrusy smell of Bulgari wafting from his neck. She liked that about him, his style. But now, all she wanted was for him to get off of her. She didn’t want to hurt his pride (which seemed to eclipse her own discomfort), so she remained silent except for a few wheezing breaths.
After twenty minutes of fumbling, Lavelle could only stay inside her for a few simian strokes before he was ejected by his ballooning stomach. With frustrated determination, he repositioned himself, lifting the folds of his stomach with both hands. The bristly hair around his navel scratched Luella’s skin. She tried not to concentrate on his scorching breath burning the skin on her face.
Instead, she imagined how they would appear to any late-night pedestrians unfortunate enough to walk by. What a pathetic sight they must be, she thought. They looked like two gorillas trying to fuck in a tin wagon.
The torrential storm that greeted them when they left the restaurant had withered to a gentle drizzle that conveniently fogged the windows. Lavelle tried to turn her on her side, ludicrously thinking that both of them could fit side by side on the narrow seat. She slipped off onto the floor and hit her head on the rain soaked mat.
Lavelle kicked the back of the driver's seat, sending the headrest toppling to the floor. “Man, fuck this shit, joe,” he said. His voice vibrated through the glass. He hadn’t planned on working this hard. “This bullshit-ass car! How I'm s'pose to get my nut off in here?” He was half-asking Luella as if it was her fault that they hadn’t found a more suitable place to rub bellies.
Luella flinched at his curses, instinctively plugging her ears with her forefingers. She should have seen this coming. It was Lavelle’s idea to use her car, but she couldn’t help feeling responsible, if only because she hadn’t planned for the possibility. No matter where the blame lay, she just didn't want him to be angry.
Lavelle clumsily sat up and threw his head back with a defeated grunt. Luella furtively started pulling her skirt back on, silently lamenting to herself the wasted money. The entire outfit was brand new from Ashley Stewart: a satin blouse (underneath which she wore an uncomfortable push-up bra) and plaid paneled skirt that concealed her blubbery bottom half.
Lavelle was still cursing to himself as he got dressed. Beads of sweat rolled down his creviced forehead, accreting into a bubble that dripped off the tip of his nose. After nimbly swaying back and forth, rocking the car along with him, he pulled on his skinny jeans—a misguided choice, Luella thought—and opened the door. He walked around to the passenger’s side, zipped up, and got in. The car responded to his weight, rising with a relieved sigh when he got out and shrinking with a squeaky groan when he returned.
“Well,” he said without looking at her. His gaze was focused on the blurry windshield. “You gon’ sit there all night, or what?”
She could hear her mother’s grating voice, speaking through a plume of smoke. “You too easy, girl. People’ll walk all over you if you don’t get some sense and toughen up. Especially a man.” Brash and often vulgar, Luella’s mother never missed an opportunity to let people know how sexy big women are.
Luella hadn’t inherited that sort of forceful confidence. She was never even able to pretend she had the larger-than-life personality to match her overgrown body, the fact of which often made her mother question how such a meek child could have come out of her. “I don’t get you sometimes, girl. I swear I don’t.”
Lavelle’s irritation filled her with a sense of fearful anticipation, the same kind she felt when she was a little girl and her mother threatened to whoop the black off her after spilling her can of 211. In that same childish way, she felt like her every move upset Lavelle further.
She got into the driver's seat and slowly turned the ignition. “I’m sorry,” she said. She couldn’t manage anything else.
The look on his face hadn't changed. His thick eyebrows glowed with sweat under the streetlight. His feelings toward her in the beginning, whatever they’d been, had soured. “Whatever, joe. Let's just go.”
The car came to a quiet start. Luella felt an unflattering similarity between herself and the economical vehicle. The soft hum of the engine and its painless maneuverability were analogous to her personality: barely audible when started and easy to control.
She pulled out of the parking lot and headed for the Dan Ryan.
Luella worked at a modest health food store in Beverly. More of a village than a suburb, the Metra tracks were all that separated it from the bustle of South Side Chicago. The segregating metal rails, like so many things in that murky city, hardly seemed out of place to those who lived there. By accident or design, they were a visible example of the dividing lines that kept the well-to-dos apart from the less fortunate in an often criticized, silently enforced, and unchanging tradition of demarcation. The mores of Chicago.
Despite the economic downturn, from which not even the semi-affluent town of Beverly had been safe, a new store opened across the street one foggy day. Perhaps the bold new owners were forward thinkers who saw hope just over the horizon and wanted to be the first to cash in.
Mother Nature didn’t agree. Portentously, the new arrival was preceded by a violent windstorm. The weatherman hadn’t predicted it, but it fell upon the area with malicious certainty.
Employees and customers watched through the floor-to-ceiling windows as passersby were thrown helplessly about, at times appearing on the verge of being sucked into the stratosphere. Branches were ripped from skinny trees, careening off cars and parking meters before coiling together under a traffic light, becoming the unofficial 95th Street Dam. Cyclones of leaves and dust spiraled by, and the wind slapped the glass with a furious, invisible palm. The Pimp Hand of God, Luella thought.
A shoddy old truck came to a grumbling stop across the street. The wind pulled flakes of snot-green paint off the doors. Four overall-clad men emerged from the truck and proceeded to unload large boxes and shrink-wrapped furniture. They moved with the practiced caution and tired swiftness that only came from years of palm-callusing labor.
Mr. Brown emerged from his office perturbed to see everyone watching the helpless pedestrians on the other side of the window. He rushed them back to work with pointless urgency. The only customers were an elderly couple scooting their way up the aisles. Nonetheless, Mr. Brown, with his coffee-stained teeth and horseshoe mustache, was never at a loss when it came to finding busywork.
Before she went to her duties, Luella took one last look out the window. The movers were gone, vanishing into the mist without a trace except for the sound of rusty wheels grinding down 95th Street. There was a girl standing on the curb. She hadn’t been there a moment earlier. She stood motionless in the middle of the block where the movers had been.
As the fog began to dissipate, the girl’s full frame became clear. She wasn’t much older than Luella, twenty-two at most, with thick brown earrings dangling from her ears in large oblong loops. She was thin but in a healthy-fashion-model sort of way, like Zoe Saldana or the Mowry twins. Her vacant eyes were wide and probing, as if they had been stolen and were searching for the face of their true owner. Her coarse hair was mashed flat like she just removed a skullcap. Despite her dinginess, the peculiar girl had an agitated beauty that made Luella think of Brad Pitt in Kalifornia and Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball, deliberately downplayed looks in a vain attempt to be taken seriously.
The girl stared without expression as the wind began to pick up again, and her ruffled white top undulated in the breeze. The sun deigned to show itself through the clouds. Briefly, Luella thought she’d caught eyes with the catatonic girl. In that moment she wasn't staring into space, but into her.
“Ms. Beasley, I didn’t ask you to watch the windows. Let’s get a move on.” Mr. Brown's voice jerked her back to reality.
“Sorry,” she said. As she turned to walk away, she dared one last peek. The girl, as evanescent as the fog, was gone.
Lavelle was a half hour late for work. He casually endured a berating from Mr. Brown before wrapping an apron around his rotund waist, taking a cart from the front, and heading to the back.
His tardiness seemed deliberate, at least to Luella. She convinced herself that Lavelle was looking for reasons to remain as far away from her as possible. It filled her with a desperate need. For what, she wasn’t sure. It was his fault that they’d ended up in such a precarious situation, but Luella had no one else. She’d known him three months, yet she felt a desperate attachment. It wasn’t a new phenomenon. She was like a stray kitten, returning every night to the person gracious enough to gift her one day’s meal.
Lavelle hadn’t given her anything. But it was the possibility that fueled her. She thought about all the erstwhile friends and boyfriends she’d lost in the past. Even larger was the amount that she never had, only fantasized about and obsessed over. In the end, the possibility of intimacy was all she was ever left with.
With every ounce of bravery in her body, Luella approached Lavelle during their first break. He was in the back room leaning against the stone wall, reading a text.
“It's cool, man,” he said with poised indifference when Luella asked when they could go out again. “It woulda been a mistake anyway. You know, since we work together and shit.”
He wasn’t interested in Luella’s meek promises of a better time. Perhaps it was his own wounded pride, or maybe he finally realized that he could do better. He never looked up from the cellphone screen as he spoke to her. Luella imagined him sending a text to her mind, ordering her to leave him alone. Indeed, the look on his face was of growing irritation.
Lavelle silently threw her back into the sea, and she woefully swam away. Maybe at first he had been willing to expand his tastes—if only charitably—to a delicacy not often sampled, but now he had regained his senses. It didn’t surprise Luella that he’d changed his mind. As sullen and pained as she felt, it was never a surprise.
After work she returned home, relaxed her mother’s hair (deliberately not telling her anything about all that happened that week), and went to bed. She tried not to cry, but woke the next morning with dry, ashy cheeks.
The next afternoon Luella arrived at work to see the windows across the street completely covered by heavy black and purple drapes. They brought to mind the memorial shrouds businesses put over their doorways when someone passed away. The dreary curtains had an eerie shimmer when hit by sunlight from just the right angle.
Cory commented on this as he and Luella stared out the window while pretending to inventory the front lanes. They had passed the same basket of items at least three times in the last hour.
“We need to find something else to do, girl,” Cory said. “This ain’t exactly what I’d call productive.” Cory was the resident gossip. Though he tried hard not to conform to every finger-snapping stereotype of gay black men, he couldn’t rid himself of the urge to openly speculate on even the most minor rumors. He also was helpless to fight his addiction to glittery lip gloss and skintight T-shirts.
“What else is there to do?” Luella said. Most days there was much. The drudgery of retail was, if nothing else, unwavering. At least now she had an excuse to feign interest in work. “This is the high point of my day.”
“That’s a shame,” a voice said from behind her.
Luella jumped at the proximity of the melodic voice, a stunned squeal escaping from her lips. Mr. Brown was taking his daily sojourn around the store, picking out random tasks that needed to be done and others that he only wanted to bitch about. He looked up from his clipboard when he heard Luella’s muffled cry. She mimed an apology, anxiously willing him not to come over. When he shook his head and walked off, Luella released a thankful sigh.
Her relief had, for a moment, made her forget that someone had made her yelp like a wounded puppy. She turned around to see the lacquered face of the girl from across the street staring, perplexed at Luella’s pluckless reaction.
It was unreal seeing her so close, like seeing someone famous in person, or a specter from a drug-induced dream made flesh. She still had on those gargantuan ruddy-brown earrings. They swung back and forth like pivots on a pendulum.
“I'm sorry,” the girl said. “I didn't mean to startle you.”
“It's okay,” Luella said. “It's not that hard to scare me.”
The girl smiled. “I'll have to remember that.”
Luella was still righting herself from the shock. She cleared her throat and asked, “Is there something I can help you with?” Cory had gone about his business, pushing a cart full of misplaced items down the aisle. As much as Luella liked him, Cory was merely a co-worker, never speaking to her outside of the store.
The girl asked for ginseng and, after Luella pointed her in the right direction, she returned with two boxes of the root and a six-pack of mineral water. By then, Luella had taken her place behind a register.
“Will that be all for you?” Luella couldn’t stop thinking about how the girl looked the day before, standing on the curb looking vacantly across the street.
The girl nodded. Her ruddy-brown jeans hugged her slender thighs. An indigo beret covered her matted hair. She had the careless looks of a bohemian, but enough exotic mystery to her to make her undeniably attractive.
“Do you believe in magic?” she asked abruptly.
Luella suddenly had an image of the bohemian girl on the El, selling body oils and herbal remedies, the kind of peddler that you pretended to ignore. She suspected that her strange customer would have distinctly better success.
“If you do, feel free to stop by the store.” She pointed across the street to the shrouded shop. “You’re welcome anytime.” Her lilting voice made Luella think of bluebirds. She had an accent that Luella couldn’t place.
“You work there?” Luella asked.
The girl nodded. “My father owns it.” She paused for a moment then held out her hand. When Luella took it she said, “I'm Parthenia.”
“That's an interesting name,” Parthenia said.
Luella was about to say the same thing. “Not really. It sounds like somebody's grandmother. Luella Beasley. That's definitely an old lady's name.”
“It's not as bad as Parthenia. It sounds like something from Greek mythology, like I should be sacrificed to the Kraken or something.”
They both laughed.
Parthenia’s careless appearance didn’t detract from her regal manner. This made the way she dressed even more unsettling. In the few moments they had spoken, Luella sensed that Parthenia was above trifling concerns and put stock in matters of high import, a woman of intellectual—rather than physical—weight, unlike Luella.)
“At least your name's pretty,” Luella said. Despite Parthenia’s ragged attire, she was a natural beauty. Without any discernible make-up, her honey-almond skin glowed under the fluorescent light. Luella felt she was justified to hate her a little for this.
“I think you would like our store,” Parthenia said. “There might be a few things that would tickle your fancy. The boys won’t leave you alone when I get done with you.”
Luella felt suddenly defensive at the implication. What did Parthenia know of her love life? Or lack thereof?
“I thought you said you sold magic tricks.” Luella said. She meant for it to sound as demeaning as Parthenia insinuation, but it came out completely innocuous.
Parthenia smiled. “I asked you if you believe in magic. If you do, you may find some when you come to visit.”
More customers started filing into Luella's line. She hated that their conversation would be cut short. “What’s your store called?”
“Legba’s.” Parthenia took her bags from Luella, her smile never wavering. “See you tomorrow." Her imperious tone was that of a polite demand.
Luella scanned a box of brown rice from the next customer. When she looked up, Parthenia had already disappeared through the automatic doors.
The sun beamed down from the empty azure sky, stinging the skin on the back of Luella’s neck. It was darker on Legba’s side of 95th Street, like a screen drawn high over the block to keep out flies.
There was no name on the purple awning blowing in the wind outside Parthenia's store. There was, however, a geometric symbol painted on the splintery wooden door. It looked like a cluttered diagram, an artistic rendering of an intersection: two perpendicular lines crossing each other, each intersected by curling streaks that looked like handlebar mustaches forming an incomplete square. The vertical line was surmounted at both ends with diamond shaped leaves, and at the crown of all four points were asterisks. Inside the square, on each of the four corners of the crossroads, were four symbols, smaller crosses at the center of circles.
One would never have guessed this had once been a daycare center. Not long ago the walls were painted in fruity shades of blue, yellow, and orange. Troughs of toys bordered a faded rainbow-colored jigsaw mat, mindless entertainment for the rugrats. Now the space was home to toys of a different sort: lining the front of the store on ornamental hooks was a collection of bohemian jewelry the likes of which poseurs wore, outwardly protesting American materialism while silently affirming that they were better than you. In the next aisle there were raggedy leather-bound books without titles that could have passed for ancient grimoires, filled with spells and curses. Lastly, Luella came upon grotesque wooden dolls with wide alien eyes wearing tattered clothes. They reminded Luella of the first day she saw Parthenia looking like a catatonic crackhead in the middle of the street.
There was incense burning. A thin wire of smoke drifted across Luella’s eyes. It smelled woodsy and sweet, like wild berries freshly plucked from a blooming shrub. The massive carpet felt like grass under her feet. It was an odd sensation, having the outdoors brought so deceptively inside, but she was more disturbed by the chain-stitch design that curved and looped in alien patterns across the floor. The ubiquity of the gleaming mica patterns in the dim light made Luella feel queasy, as if she would be swallowed whole into a waiting abyss.
Just when Luella could no longer endure the nauseous atmosphere, Parthenia appeared, walking up the aisle.
“Hello, stranger,” Parthenia said. The elaborate head wrap she wore twisted high above her head like a fat purple beehive. She had a big pearly smile on her face like the last time Luella saw her.
“Hey,” Luella said. “Nice store.” She didn’t have the courage to tell Parthenia that she found her store utterly repugnant. “It looks like you guys will be ready to open soon.”
Parthenia giggled. “We are open.”
Luella glanced over Parthenia’s shoulder at the thick drapes covering the windows and adding to the store’s gloom.
As if she could read Luella's mind, Parthenia said, “Those are for ambiance. People will come when the word gets out.”
Luella smiled, warily. Under the best circumstances, most stores were lucky to stay afloat for a year. A store that hid its merchandise, didn’t advertise, and didn’t even have a name on its awning… They wouldn't make it to winter.
“So, do you like what you see?” Parthenia asked.
Luella looked around. “Uh, yeah,” she said. “It’s a nice spot. It’s kind of weird, though, that you’re open without even a name on the awning outside.”
Parthenia nodded. “Odd to you maybe.”
Luella waited for her to retract the pompous statement. When she didn’t, Luella decided it wasn’t worth losing a prospective friend (especially since she had none) and decided not to push it. “What does it mean?” Luella said. “Legba?”
“Papa Legba is a sort of intermediary for the world of men and the Loa: spirits, or gods, if you prefer. In various Vodou and Vodun religions, you cannot commune with the Loa until you call on Legba. I suppose you could say that it would be pointless to pray for good wealth and cheer without going through the proper channels first.”
“So he’s kind of like Hustle-Man, huh?” Luella laughed. “Except on a larger scale.” When Parthenia gave her a curious look, she changed the subject. “You guys have some interesting stuff. Are these antiques?” She pointed toward the big-headed dolls. She couldn’t even look at them.
“Some things are. We’ve collected so many things during our travels… It gets hard to keep up with. So we decided to open this little shop to rid ourselves of unimportant things.”
Luella was curious as to how long they planned to stay open. They couldn’t have that large of a collection to warrant opening an entire store just to get rid of them. It seemed a colossal waste of time and space.
“The best things I kept for myself, though,” Parthenia said with a devilish grin. She led Luella to the weather-beaten back room.
Parthenia pulled a wooden rectangle box from a gold-rimmed black trunk. It was mahogany with flowers etched into the wood. “My mom loved to make her own jewelry,” Parthenia said.
She opened the box. There was a choker necklace inside. It was adorned with tiny sparkling stones. The largest stone was in the middle. In the waning light of the room, it glowed with emerald brilliance.
“My mom wore this every day of my life,” Parthenia said. “Before she died.”
Luella didn’t know how to respond so she said, “It's beautiful.” Briefly, she thought she felt an invisible hand grasping hers, pulling her toward the sparking green stone.
“She said it was love.”
“I would love something like this too.” Luella hadn't taken her eyes of the necklace for a moment. “How could you not love something you made yourself?”
“No. She said it was love.” Parthenia's voice cracked just enough to make Luella feel uneasy.
It was all very personal. Too personal for people who’d only just met. Luella had been the same way with Lavelle. With little insistence, she had spilled the minutiae of her life to him in one hour-long conversation. She furnished the details of her life: her mother, her tempestuous love affair with food, her insecurities. She suddenly felt self-conscious. Lavelle knew everything about her. What was it about continual isolation that forced one to spill their guts to whomever was charitable enough to listen? It was a consequence of loneliness, compulsive confession.
They had circumnavigated the store and returned to the entrance without noticing. They stood in awkward silence. Luella more awkward than her host.
Parthenia cut the tension. “Everything happens for a reason,” she said, cryptically. “There was a reason my mother died, a reason why I moved here.” She smiled and added, “And there is a reason that I met you.”
She didn't say another word, only opened the door, letting in the brightness of the day. The veil had been lifted from the store like a broken curse.
Parthenia closed the door behind her and Luella couldn’t stop grinning. She’d never had a best friend, but she knew immediately that she and Parthenia would be inseparable.
As she walked away, however, her smile waned. She racked her brain trying to recall if Parthenia told her if Legba’s was open or simply soon to open. Then she remembered that her new BFF did in fact say that the freaky little shop was already open for business. It troubled her only because, just before she was out of earshot, and despite the fact that it was still early afternoon, Luella heard the locks on the other side of the door clamp shut in rhythmic percussion.
Parthenia had been to places Luella had only read about and others she never heard of. She went to school in Hong Kong and Paris. She lived in India and West Africa, where her father had business, of which she didn’t elaborate. Her odd accent was due to the fact that English was only one of five languages she was fluent in. She spoke Kreyole, Swahili, French, and an Indian dialect that Luella couldn't pronounce. She admitted that most of the time English was not spoken in her home.
Within a few weeks before Luella was spending most of her time at Legba’s. Parthenia's father was a phantom. He let his daughter deal with most of the day-to-day business. “He’s very busy,” Parthenia said. “Upwardly mobile.”
Luella called the store once, pointlessly checking to see if Parthenia was there—she always was—and a gravelly voice picked up the other end. It was Parthenia’s father. Luella was taken aback in the way one is when they speak to someone they had only heard about. In that first instance it’s like meeting someone famous, you almost think that they aren’t real. He sounded like he had swallowed a handful of broken glass when he spoke. He told her that Parthenia wasn’t in and quickly hung up.
“So why don't you have a boyfriend?” Parthenia asked Luella one day while they were cataloging merchandise. Legba’s had become her unofficial second job.
Luella almost coughed on the peppermint she was sucking. She resumed writing in the logbook and said, “No reason.”
“There's always a reason,” Parthenia said.
“There doesn’t have to be.”
Parthenia dropped her head and looked at Luella incredulously. “Come on,” she said. “What happened?”
“What do you mean? Nothing.” Something about Parthenia’s prying made Luella’s flesh crawl. She seemed to have an intuitive sense of when Luella was lying.
“I see,” Parthenia said. She ran her fingers through the shaggy mess on her head. “You like girls then.”
“No!” Luella choked. “Boys… I like boys.”
“I guess I should have asked if you had a girlfriend.”
“Shut up! I do not like girls. I mean, I like girls—I like you—but not like that.”
“I always wondered, is kissing a girl the same as kissing a boy?”
Luella threw a wadded up piece of paper at Parthenia. It hit her square on the forehead. They both doubled over laughing.
“You are so stupid,” Luella said. “I'm gonna stop talking to you. You play too much.” She was still breathing hard from laughing.
Parthenia shook her head. “No you won't. You know I'm your best friend.”
Luella smiled. It was true. In less than a month, she had grown closer to this girl than anyone else in her life.
“I was talking to a boy at my job,” Luella said.
“And?” Parthenia had taken a seat on a stool behind the cash register.
“It didn't turn out very well.”
“How do you mean?”
“We couldn’t see eye to eye on some things.” Understatement.
“Luella,” Parthenia said with a hint of irritation. “You know I’m not letting you off the hook with just that.”
Luella took a deep breath and recounted her and Lavelle’s romp in the back seat of the Ford.
Parthenia wouldn’t abide Luella’s guilty tone. “I'll tell you what you should do,” she said. “One thing my mother always told me was that every man wants what he cannot have.”
“How does that apply to me?” Luella said. She sounded more desperate for the answer than she planned to be.
Parthenia reached into her beehive and, to Luella’s surprise, pulled out the shiny wooden box she’d shown Luella weeks earlier. The box with the necklace. “What did you say this boy’s name was?” She was rubbing the box in slow long strokes.
“Lavelle.” Luella could feel a balloon of excitement inexplicably swell inside her stomach.
Parthenia’s eyes changed. They weren’t as bright as before. The irises had the same murky brilliance, but the sclera had turned a shade of yellow-white. The skin around her eye-sockets was wrinkled. Like Luella’s mother after a hard night of Long-Island-fueled partying, Parthenia seemed prematurely aged. In body, not simply mind.
“Is he cute?” Parthenia asked, suddenly. She had stopped rubbing the box and her attention was back on Luella. The wrinkles on her face were gone.
“Very,” Luella said. It must have been a trick of the light, she thought, like the rug and the drapes. It is dark in here.
“Well this time next week I bet he'll be begging you to go out with him again.”
“Why would he do that?” Luella was suddenly unsettled. Parthenia’s eyes were narrow and calculating, not as wide and concerned as before.
Parthenia looked Luella up and down. “Firstly, we're going to make you a bit more desirable.”
Luella looked down at herself. Her belly fat was hidden beneath a triple-extra-large T-shirt. She wasn’t brave enough to come outside in shorts that showed off her cellulite and the dimples that passed for her knees. “I don’t understand.”
“By the time I get finished with you, you'll be beating them off with a stick—I take that back—you're going to need a shotgun to keep him off you.”
Luella giggled. She didn't know whether her friend was trying to cheer her up or if she was delusional.
“And we'll start the transformation with this.”
Just like magic, Parthenia opened the rectangle box.
“You’re not serious,” Luella said.
The jewel was opalescent. Once again Luella was breathless at the sight of it. When she asked Parthenia what it was worth, all she said was, “More than anyone could calculate.”
“I can't take that,” Luella said. In her heart, she was lying. She wanted it. She wanted it more than anything she had ever wanted in her life. She wanted it on her skin, massaging the flesh of her throat with the smooth stone.
“Of course you can,” Parthenia said. “I'm giving it to you.”
“But it's all you have left of your mom. What if I lost it or got it stolen? I couldn't live with myself.”
“I trust you, Luella. I trust you with anything.”
Luella shook her head, meekly. What could she say? She didn’t have the willpower to resist.
Without waiting for approval, Parthenia took the choker from the box and walked behind Luella. She lifted it over Luella's head and fastened it around her neck. “You're taking it,” she said.
Luella was still shaking her head in shock. She strained her eyes trying to look down at the jewel as it tightened around her throat. She imagined it constricting her windpipe, sucking the air from her body. It didn't seem to glow as it had before. Instead of bright jade, glowing white in the center, it was a disappointing dark green. The light must have played tricks on her eyes before. She felt like it was telling her that it wasn’t hers to wear.
“I don't know,” Luella said. As she spoke she was rubbing the stone between her thumbs. It was warm to the touch.
“Yes you do,” Parthenia said. “If you keep fighting me like this, I'm going to be offended.” She folded her arms and watched as Luella fumbled, trying to find the right thing to say.
“Just for the week. Then I have to give it back.” She wanted to keep it forever.
“It's a deal. Though I don't think you'll be saying that when the time comes.”
Luella never put any stock into the hoodoo that Parthenia ascribed to the bauble around her neck, but she did feel attached to it. After the week was up, which came entirely too fast for Luella, she dreaded returning the gift. She played it passively, waiting for Parthenia to reclaim her gift rather than seeking her out. Parthenia didn’t, however, giving Luella a brief reprieve as well as filling her with a relieved guilt.
Magic charm or not, it did have an effect on her love life. She had all but given up on Lavelle, when he anxiously approached her and asked her out on another date, promising to make up for his past boorish behavior. He took her to the Melting Pot, a fondue restaurant downtown where he spent the entire evening lamenting how he had made a mistake ignoring Luella and how much he really liked her. He complimented her dress and the way she did her hair. When he wasn’t showering her with praises, he stared at her with a star-struck grin on his face, basking in her glow as if she had a visible aura that only he could see.
Luella didn’t want the night to end. She felt an unusual feeling, one she’d never experienced before. It took her a while to pinpoint it, finally realizing that the new sensation was power. She relished the fact that she seemingly had Lavelle wrapped around her finger, a joy that she had only witnessed other women indulge in. For the first time ever, she had power over someone else. She never wanted to let it go.
Lavelle was a perfect gentleman, something that seemed out of character for him. At the end of the night, he walked her to her door and gallantly kissed her hand. He promised her that things between them would be different from now on.
They kissed slowly and softly under the porch light.
What Luella hadn’t seen was the pair of eyes watching her. The eyes were attached to a withered face, almost as withered as the spirit behind it, concealed behind a pair of dark glasses. With an old man’s patience, the dark man’s eyes watched Luella continue what the Mama had started.
Pink and violet streaks filled the sky as the sun retreated into the horizon. Eshu could feel the climate shifting. The temperature was less predictable here than in any part of the world that he could remember. But his memory was weak these days.
The boy dropped her off, leaving with a look of vacant obsession splashed across his face.
It’s all a cycle, Eshu thought, a terrible and unerring circle, relentlessly killing and sucking and feeding on the unfortunate masses that have no knowledge of such things.
Time and again the Mama stroked its will and innocents were left to pay. Eshu had been a happy participant, always faithful and obliging. Immortality has a price, and why should he not be immortal if only for the sake of a few unimportant lives?
Eshu was tired. Mama hadn’t warned him about how futile it all gets, how ineffectual the world and its fleeting indulgences are after millennia of unending life. But he was tethered to the Mama, as helpless as a nursing infant. Its power over him wasn’t absolute, but he long ago lost the strength to resist, his fortitude withering away with any will to live.
He leaned on his staff, digging his nails into the corrugated wood. All he could do now was watch the circle complete itself once again, and try to remember a time when he thought life was worth fighting for.
This was the fifth time Lavelle called Luella tonight.
“Hey, ma. I was just checkin to see if you was ’sleep yet.”
It was like this all week. When he didn’t call, he texted. At work he left contrived love letters and poems a la 50 Cent at her register.
For the first day or two Luella was as flattered as any girl in her position would be; more so since no boy had ever taken so avid an interest in her. When things started to get excessive, she wasn’t sure how to handle it.
She thought Parthenia might know, but she was still nowhere to be found, which irritated her.
She pushed the thought from her mind. It was stupid to question the bond they shared. It couldn‘t be broken. They were outcasts. They were the ones left behind after all of the thin, pretty, and charming had been handed out. Though Luella had missed more than Parthenia.
Lavelle was standing at the door to the back room when Luella arrived at work. The air stiffened in her chest and she contemplated going the other way. He anxiously shifted from side to side, running his fingers through his nappy hair. His forehead was moist with sweat.
“Lavelle?” Luella said.
His head popped up when he heard her voice. “Luella!” His whole body seemed to awaken with nervous excitement. Before she could say another word he grabbed her by the arm and, with inhuman strength, pulled her into a hug. “I gotta show you something,” he said when he released her.
He dragged her to his locker where he pulled out a large blue box.
“I know people always givin’ you a hard time,” Lavelle said. His voice was raspy and trembling. “So I wanted to do my part to help make it better for you.”
He handed her the box. It was heavier than she thought it would be. She had to flex her muscles so she wouldn’t drop it.
She was flushed with surprise and a little shame that it was so easy to appease her. The fact that Lavelle had gone out of his way to make her feel better slowly washed away her trepidation about his stalkerish behavior.
“What is it?” she said.
“Something that will make sure you won’t get so stressed out at work anymore.”
Luella slowly opened the box, intoxicatingly delaying her own gratification. As suddenly as it came upon her, the smile across her face melted away and her eyes widened in terror. She dropped the box and slowly backed away.
Mr. Brown’s disembodied head hit the floor with a loud whack. It rolled across the floor like a soccer ball made of flesh and bone.
Luella clasped her hands to her mouth and released a muffled scream. The head barreled toward her in time with her every backward step. It rested at her feet.
“Wha’wrong?” Lavelle choked. His mouth was dripping with saliva and something was wrong with his eyes. His irises were flecked in sulfuric yellow. He was confused and angered by Luella’s reaction, like a severed head was as innocuous a present as a Walmart gift card.
Luella inched toward the back door, shaking her head in terror.
Lavelle’s voice grew more dissonant. He matched every backward step Luella took with a stomp forward.
“What’s the matter, Lu?” he said. A string of saliva stretched down his chin. “Don’t you like it?”
She instinctively held her arms in front of her, knowing they would be useless if he charged at her.
“I only did it because I love you.” His unblinking eyes were insane and yellow. They weren’t human eyes anymore; they were primal, filled with fury and lust. “I did it because I love you.”
Luella slammed against the back door. The metal bar dug into the flesh of her back. She tried to scream but it came out a phlegm-choked gurgle. She fell out into the alley sliding across the wet grimy pavement. She scrambled to her feet and took off down the alley, no courage to look behind her. Her thighs violently rubbed together as if to spark a flame. She couldn’t remember another time in her life when she wanted more desperately to be thin.
Lavelle stood in the doorway, repeating his declaration with escalating rage. “I only did it ’cause I love you!”
Her legs felt like Jell-O by the time she made it to the next block. It might as well have been a mile. Her thighs burned. Lavelle hadn’t given chase.
She leaned against a brick wall and tried to slow her erratic breathing. Her heart was beating fast and hard, scaring her with each burning thump. She pushed on her chest trying to make it slow from the outside.
Luella brushed her hand across the stone on her neck. She caught a glimpse of herself in a puddle. It was bright again, brighter than it was the first time she saw it. There was an emerald glow at the fringes of an opalescent core like the iris of a star. She wanted to rip it off and cast it into the gutter. But she was crippled. Her hand lost all feeling at the very thought of it. For one terrifying moment she allowed herself to think the eye was staring at her.
She gagged on the phlegm that gathered in the back of her throat. From the beginning Luella knew there was something not right about the gift. Parthenia had been too eager to give it to her, hadn’t she? She had almost forced it on her, like a plague she was desperate to pass on. Then she disappeared. The more Luella thought about it, the more it made sense. Nothing that happened since she met Parthenia was an accident. Had that been the point then? Had Parthenia sought out Luella simply to rid herself of some unimaginable curse?
Her breathing finally slowed. She swallowed all the spit in her mouth hard. Every sinew in her body felt wrong about what she was about to do, but she was compelled to cross the street, by swelling rage or intense curiosity, didn’t seem to matter.
The sun was halfway hidden under the horizon. Legba’s stood in the deepening twilight, a dark spot obscuring the sky’s crepuscular charm. The door was open. The air was different when she walked into the store. It was thick, like volcanic ash, clinging to her lungs with every nervous breath.
The air shifted. All the windows were closed, yet there was a gentle breeze. It was more of a vacuum, sucking all the air in the room in one direction. The musty breeze had a purpose. It was drawing her in one direction: a dark wooden door at a far corner of the store. Luella hadn’t noticed it before, but she couldn’t be positive that it hadn’t been there the entire time. She simply had no memory of it.
Against her every instinct, she crept toward it, allowing herself to think that making too much noise would make the splintering portal spring to life and devour her. Her hand trembled as she gripped the knob and turned. She half hoped it would be locked. She knew it wouldn’t be.
The air, musty and damp, almost knocked her over. It was a portal. A tall thin staircase stretched toward the attic. Another door, this one with faded, flaking yellow paint. Luella felt the pressure push on her chest as she climbed the stairs. Every ounce of her considerable weight pulled down on her, her aching thighs begging her not to take another step.
She stood at the top of the stairs, silently congratulating herself for completing such a tortuous climb. She stared at the rotting wood, studying every grain. It smelled strangely sweet, like sap-bleeding elm. Slowly, she raised a trembling fist to knock.
“What are you waiting for?” a voice said from the other side. “Come in.” A man’s voice. It was dry and hoarse.
The door creaked open. Spider webs fell to pieces in the gust from the stairwell. The room was small, an attic. The sun had set and the street lights illuminated the room through a tiny arched window. The cars buzzed down 95th Street and suddenly Luella wished she could call for help, but she was frozen in place. A twin mattress lay in the corner. It looked brand new, out of place in the decrepit room.
“I was hoping I’d get to meet you.” A hooded figure swiveled around on a black stool. Luella had hardly noticed him. He blended well into the background. He had a serpentine staff lying across his lap. It was etched with similar markings as Parthenia’s box. But the staff was less ornate and more foreboding.
“Parthenia?” Luella dared.
“She’ll be back shortly,” he said. His breathing was laborious. Still, he continued. “Frankly, I’m glad she’s not here. This way you and I can have a moment to ourselves.”
Luella dug her nails into the flesh of her thighs. Every bone in her body wanted to turn and run. But she stopped herself, or rather the pain in her legs did. Fleeing from Lavelle had tapped her entire supply of adrenaline.
“Wouldn’t you like to have a seat?” the hooded man asked.
She shook her head.
“How about some candy?” He held out a jig-saw-skinned hand filled with Now-N-Laters.
There was an old teakettle resting on top of a hot plate next to the stool. Steam was bubbling from its snout.
Luella unclenched her thighs and shook her head. She was oddly put at ease by his hospitality. She guessed that that was the point.
“I know you have questions,” he said. His crusty lips peeked from behind the hood. “I will try my best to answer them, but you must agree to help me when we are finished.”
“Help you with what?”
“All in time,” he said, unwrapping three of the Now-N-Laters and shoving them in his mouth. “When the time comes, I’ll need you to make a choice.”
Her legs tired, Luella crouched next to the door. “She keeps you locked up here?”
“In a manner of speaking, yes.” He threw his head forward and coughed into his fist. He heaved and spit up the contents of his throat onto the floor. His face was briefly visible at that moment. His skin was horribly scarred and thin, so thin it was translucent, revealing the roadwork of underlying muscles. He looked as though he hadn’t seen the sun in years.
He righted himself then continued. “You want to know what that is.” He pointed to Luella’s necklace. “I can only tell you that I don’t know what it is. Only that it is ancient and full of terrible power.”
Terrible power. Luella had never heard those two words put together that way. “What is it? Cursed? Is it some kinda voodoo charm?”
The hooded man let out a frightening sound. She couldn’t tell whether it was a laugh or another violent cough, or perhaps a little of both.
“Whatever it is, child, it was around long before voodoo or curses or any kind of magic as you would think of it. The object in your possession may be the last true magic left. Perhaps it was the only real magic to begin with.”
Luella pulled her legs close so that her knees touched her chin. She sat in the corner like a child listening to a scary story.
“I don’t understand,” she said.
“I wouldn’t expect you to, child. How could you? You’ve stumbled into a cycle that has continued for eons. Before any history you have ever studied or will study, this has been the way of things. Men have worshipped gods and goddesses and replaced them with new, more terrible ones. Sometimes those gods are real, and sometimes they impart some of their power into people or objects. And the cycle continues.”
A horrifying thought crossed Luella’s mind. “Is Parthenia a god?”
The man shrugged and sucked on his candy. “Men have always been quick to worship powerful things. Weapons, religions, money, ideals, magicians…” He shook his head at man’s naiveté. “To answer your question, Mama has been called a goddess in the past. In Africa, India, Persia. Ancient places. But it is not omnipotent or immortal, at least not in the strictest sense.”
Luella couldn’t believe what she was hearing. But she knew that every word of this nightmare was real. She felt dread swell in her stomach as she contemplated the possibilities. She never believed in magic, and only tentatively believed in any sort of greater power at all. She always thought of herself as an agnostic. Now she was mixed up with gods and ancient talismans.
She felt stupid. How easily had Parthenia manipulated her? She had so adeptly portrayed herself as a fellow pariah and gained Luella’s trust. And worship.
“Is Parthenia your mother?”
He looked at her like he’d been asked a ridiculous question.
“You called her—it—Mama.”
“No, child,” he said. “That is what the Africans called her long ago when we travelled through Benin and Senegal. No. A Mama is what you might call... a priestess. At least that’s what the thing you call Parthenia was when I first met it, so very long ago.”
“You don’t have to scare the poor girl.”
Luella’s head shot to the door. Parthenia stood with her hands on her hips like a heroine who just ambushed the villain in his lair. Indeed, she had gotten the drop on them.
The hooded man dropped his head in deference. Parthenia walked over to him and snatched off his hood, revealing the full extent of his disfigurement. He wasn’t scarred like Luella had thought, but misshapen, his skin stretched tightly across his face. He was like the elephant in the store, all the right parts put together in the wrong order.
Luella felt an overpowering urge to run. She never should have come here. She should have thrown the necklace in the gutter, called the police and went on with her life, sans magic. But before she could dart down the stairs, Parthenia waved her hand and the door slammed shut with a deafening wham. The whir of air stirred up motes of dust that filled Luella’s lungs.
Stunned and gagging on dust, Luella wasn’t surprised at the impossible feat. She was still filled with questions, however, which she used to distract from her fear. “He’s your father, isn’t he?” Luella asked, still coughing.
Parthenia giggled, shaking her head. “Oh, no. This place is rented in his name, his assumed name I mean, but he is of no relation to me. He’s more like an assistant. An annoying one as of late, but helpful.” She held out her hand without looking and the hooded man quickly dropped a few pieces of candy into her waiting palm. “Since my friend here has decided to go mute, why don’t I fill in the blanks?” She chewed her candy and took a seat on the mattress.
“I just want to get out of this,” said Luella. She was lying. “What is it?”
“You could never understand what that is, and by implication you’ll never truly know what’s going on. But to give you an idea, the jewel is a kind of battery, a rechargeable battery, to be precise.”
Parthenia glanced out the corner of her eye at her disfigured partner. Luella guessed that Parthenia and the grotesque lump were closer in age that she realized.
“The stone has given me many gifts, a long life not being the least of them, but every now and then it needs to be… recharged.”
“How?” It would have been pointless to run, she realized. If Parthenia couldn’t catch her, the stone would draw her back. She could feel its intoxicating power rumble through her bones.
“Therein lies the issue,” said Parthenia. “The jewel chooses someone, someone with a strong desire, to be specific. Once it chooses, it satisfies that desire. At least that’s how it’s worked since I’ve been in possession of it. It’s all very complicated, and an ant like you wouldn’t understand anyway. All you need to know, the only question you should have asked, is that there is always a price.”
Luella stood up like a fire was lit under her. “I didn’t ask for this! I didn’t want some crazy boy giving me severed heads!”
Parthenia continued without raising her voice. “Like I said, always a price. Most of the time, like in your case, that means a blood sacrifice.”
Luella thought of Mr. Brown’s head rolling around on the floor. She wondered if Lavelle had taken the time to bury the body.
Parthenia shrugged. “Honestly, I thought it would be you. The sacrifice, I mean.” She looked oddly juvenile sucking on the sour candy. “Lavelle should have gone mad with jealous rage over some imagined slight and strangled you to death. But a sacrifice is a sacrifice, isn’t it?”
“So you were willing to kill me for this?” She snatched the necklace from around her neck. It was brilliant in the darkness of the attic. Just like the air in the store, the stone sucked the light from the room.
For the first time since she’d been there, the smile faded from Parthenia’s face. She rose from her seat and walked toward Luella. “I don’t need you anymore, little girl. The jewel has energy enough to last me for a very long time.” She reached out a hand, gesturing with her fingers for Luella to hand it over.
Luella looked to the disfigured man. He was staring her straight in the eye and she knew what he wanted from her. Luella became sure that it was of the utmost importance that Parthenia did not have it.
She clutched the jewel close to her chest. Before she could turn and run down the stairs, Parthenia lunged at her, knocking her to the ground. She scratched and bit at Luella’s face. In the space of a few seconds, she had turned from a cold and calculating mastermind into a savage. The trick with the door must have been a demonstration of fleeting power, a desperate attempt at intimidation.
Luella held on to the stone with all her strength. She could feel the flesh ripping from her face. Parthenia was inhumanly strong. Her nails threatened to slash Luella’s throat.
Luella kicked and screamed to no avail. Flashes of white light cut the darkness behind her eyelids with each of Parthenia’s blows. But there was a moment of clarity, perhaps from the jewel, where Luella realized something crucial. Parthenia mentioned that the ones who came before were all murdered by the objects of their desire, making it easy for Parthenia to reclaim the re-energized stone. Luella was still alive.
The answer had been there the whole time. Luella screamed with a fury she’d never known. “It doesn’t belong to you anymore! It’s mine!”
The madness stopped as suddenly as it had started. Luella lay on the moldy floor, too afraid to open her eyes. Then she heard a strained grunt followed by the sound of something ripping, like a strongman tearing a phonebook in two. The unmistakable warmness of blood splashed across her face. Her mouth filled with its coppery flavor.
She wiped the blood from her eyes. She could feel the flesh hanging from her face. The disfigured man was holding Parthenia’s doll-like head. The look on Parthenia face was of surprised horror. Rightfully so.
Strips of flesh dangled between the hooded man’s plastic fingers like bloody rope. He had ripped it clean from her body. He held it out to Luella, a token of his appreciation. She waved it off. She’d received enough severed heads today.
The pain should have been unbearable, but all Luella could focus on was the stone. The light that was so dim at first glowed with renewed vigor. And the pain was gone. She reached for her face, knowing already that the wounds had healed. Only Parthenia’s blood stained her face.
Luella felt clear, focused for the first time in her life. The jewel gleamed a burning white. It filled the tiny room until there was nothing but a brilliant void in front of her. A chasm opened, ever deepening, before her. The chasm wasn’t empty. It was filled with her memories: Lavelle, her mother, Mr. Brown, Parthenia. The vastness of her unremarkable life lay before her. But she wasn’t sad. The crater closed, locking in her disposable past. Her regrets, her insecurities, her fear were forever sealed. The gloomy attic was in front of her again.
The little man was staring into her eyes with the same reverence and, yes, the same divine fear with which he’d glared at Parthenia.
“You claimed it,” he said. He was smiling, revealing a row of crocodile teeth. “Her hold over me was connected to her possession of the rock. And perhaps due as well to my weary soul.” He put a bloody hand on Luella’s shoulder, staining her shirt with red fingerprints. “But you sparked me like no one else has. Simply by fighting back and claiming the stone. None of the others ever had a chance. The jewel turned on them, as it eventually turns on everyone.” He shook his head as if he’d said something he shouldn’t have. “It is a fickle and cruel thing.”
Luella smiled. But it’s mine, she thought.
“Now it is time to decide. What will you do with it, Mama?”
Luella regarded the stone for a moment then put her hand on top of his. “You never told me your name,” she said.
He contemplated the question as if it had never been asked before, like he couldn’t immediately recall his own name. “I… in Togo, they called me Eshu,” he said.
She tied the necklace around her neck, relishing its tightness. She wanted the stone to melt into her skin. “It’s nice to meet you, Eshu. My name is Luella.”
Luella finally left the shitty little store. It felt like she’d been in there forever. Indeed, every moment not in her presence was an eternity. The night air seemed to warm when she stepped outside. She was warm and bright and beautiful as any star in the sky. The apotheosis of radiance.
Luella’s mother hadn’t been home when Lavelle smashed the door down. He planned to wring her neck and present her warm bloody heart to Luella as further proof of his love and willingness to punish anyone who caused her even a moment’s pain. There was no need to worry. Soon enough, he’d serve the old heifer’s organs on a porcelain platter.
All for Luella.
A monkish figure followed Luella out onto the sidewalk. This filled Lavelle with rage. Did she not appreciate his gifts? Was that why she ran away? She was testing him, he thought.
Women. Always playing games.
She wanted him to prove that he wanted her more than anyone else could, that he was willing to go the extra mile. Little did she know that, for her, he’d go an extra ten. He’d already killed for her.
His forearm stung from where the pen dug into his flesh. He couldn’t find a blade so he took a Waterman fountain pen from Mr. Brown’s desk. He wouldn’t need it anymore.
The pain excited him. It signified something real, special, something that would be forever, indelibly etched into his skin in gooey alliteration:
LAVELLE LOVES LUELLA
Blood soaked into his shirt, turning it a murky russet brown. He couldn’t wait to show Luella his newest affirmation of unyielding and immeasurable love.
He hid in the alley and waited for her to walk by.