One of these days, I won’t feel the need to add disclaimers. For now, I’m trying to stay out of trouble. This is not my mother or father. It is fiction. But “Cully Jean” is a very real woman. I love her dearly.
Red and White
My sister is graduating today. I sit on a sweaty, metal folding chair at
the community center and wait to hear them call her name. Cully Jean sits
on a folding chair across the room beside ten other GED graduates. Nobody
wears a cap and gown. The air conditioner’s not working well, and the small
room smells strongly of felt tipped pens and hot bodies that are too close
together. Babies cry and little kids squirm on the floor. An administrator in
a cheap green suit stands up and looks at his watch. He wipes his forehead
with a handkerchief and reads a speech called It’s A Brand New Day.
Cully rolls her eyes and looks like she really wants a cigarette. She is
dark and beautiful like her Cherokee mama. Cully is thirty four, but she
already has stripes of white in her long black hair and dark half moons
under her eyes. Her breasts are large. She has one good arm and one
stubby arm. Her stubby arm ends where her elbow should be and has three
small, working fingers on it.
My legs are sticking to the metal chair, and I wish I had worn pants
instead of a skirt. Cully is wearing black jeans and the cute new top we
picked out at Wal-Mart today. It is dark red with short puffy sleeves and is
covered with tiny white dots. Cully points to her top and mouths the word
RED. Then she flips me off with her good hand and grins.
The women at social services nicknamed us Red and White. We were
born on the same day, but we’re not twins. We have the same white father.
He was almost fifty and already had a bunch of abused and abandoned kids
by the time he got our mothers pregnant.
My mother was white. She turned fourteen on the day I was born.
Cully’s mother was full-blooded Cherokee and a little older, maybe sixteen
or seventeen. Our father wanted to look noble for once in his life, so he
allowed both of his pregnant girlfriends to move in with him. He lived in a
dumpy little house on the outskirts of town. That’s where Cully and I were
Social Services took us away when we were eight. I was small for my
age. Once my blond, curly hair was deloused and combed, I became a hot
commodity. I was placed with an older couple who live in a large Victorian
house on the good side of town. Eventually, they adopted me. Cully got
bounced around to different foster homes on the bad side of town.
When we were kids, our town was relatively small, and Cully could ride
her bike to my house. She showed up once or twice a week after midnight
and threw rocks at my window until I climbed down the trellis from my
second story room. The last time I snuck out with Cully Jean, we were
eleven. I didn’t really want to go anywhere. I was in a comfortable bed. I
liked my life and didn’t want to mess it up. But she kept throwing rocks, and
I was afraid she’d break the window. So, down I went.
Once my feet hit the ground, I turned around and saw Cully leaning
against a maple tree, smoking a cigarette. The rows of lights that framed the
lawn cast weird shadows on Cully’s face, and it made her look like she
had no eyes. What the frig took you so long? she asked. Little puffs of
smoke came out with her words.
We rode our bikes down Oak Street with its respectable rows of ivy
covered houses. We passed the Episcopal church and the new Elmwood
Elementary building where I went to school. After a while, we came to a
twin set of railroad tracks. We rode over the tracks and through the housing
projects and trailer courts. We passed the shabby little Ridgerock
Elementary school, where Cully may or may not be the next morning. We
passed the non-denominational church with Good News! spray painted in
neon yellow across its gray, windowless building.
We finally came to an abandoned gas station that was next to a row of
empty buildings. This was Cully’s favorite spot to hang, especially when her
foster father was in town. The street lights were still intact. We saw bullets
and needles on the ground. Sometimes, there were stray cats who would
let us pet them. When we got tired of sitting out front, we could slip inside
the gas station through a broken door in the back. There was an old, dust
covered cash register still on the counter. One time, we found a box full
of comic books.
Instead of going inside the gas station, we decided to sit down on a
rickety bench in front of the building. Cully pulled a joint out of her pocket
and lit it. We took little puffs and coughed until we gagged. The weed made
our heads feel big and put us in a silly mood. Broken glass sparkled on the
asphalt. We started doing hand clap games and laughing at how hard it was
to keep a rhythm, because we were stoned.
All of a sudden, a car pulled up. I didn’t hear it coming. I was laughing
too hard. Cully’s eyes got real big, and I laughed some more. Oh, shit, she
said. The car was a banged up piece of junk, and it squeaked and rattled to a
stop. A big man with a pot belly got out of the car. You little bitch! he
screamed. The state don’t pay us enough to put up with your crap!
Cully jumped up and started to run, but the man caught her by the hair
and flung her on the ground. He pulled off his belt and swung it high in the
air behind his head. Cully sat up and tried to get away. The belt came down
across her face with a snap. Cully screamed and fell back on the ground,
holding her face with her good hand. I jumped up and ran behind a pile of
wooden pallets while the man continued to beat Cully Jean.
I peeped around the pallets. I was so afraid the man would kill her. He
grabbed Cully by the hair and dragged her behind the gas station. I could
hear the sickening sound of his belt on Cully Jean’s skin. She screamed a
few more times. Then I heard nothing, except for the sound of my own
I waited for what seemed like forever. When I couldn’t stand waiting
any longer, I snuck to the side of the building and looked around back. The
man was sitting down on something. Cully Jean was on her knees in front of
the man. He was holding Cully’s head between his legs. Her shirt was off.
I was too terrified to run. I walked backward until I couldn’t see the
man or Cully anymore. I found a huge cardboard box on the side of the
building. I hid under the box. My pulse was beating loudly in my ears.
Something skittered by my arm, and I clapped my hand over my mouth so
I wouldn’t scream.
Eventually, I heard his heavy footsteps go past. The car door creaked
open. Then the car gurgled to a start and sped away. A few minutes later, I
crept out, and Cully’s bike was still there. I found her behind the gas station
on her hands and knees. She was crying and throwing up. Cully struggled to
her feet, still crying, and I helped her put on her shirt. Cully’s cheek was
bleeding. One of her eyes was closed shut. I didn’t know what to do, so I
reached out and tried to brush her hair away from her eyes. Cully Jean
spat in my face. Get away from me, bitch. I hate you, she hissed. Then she
got on her bike and slowly rode away.
I didn’t see Cully Jean for a long time after that. The next time we met,
we were thirteen. I was standing in front of the 7-11 store, and Cully came
whizzing up on a brand new skateboard and slammed into me. She told me
her mother had bought it for her. It still had the price tag on it. I doubted
what she said, but I tried to act impressed for her sake.
Then high school came along. People said I was a hottie. I got invited
to dances and had a lot of friends. Cully dropped out of her school midway
through freshman year. She was already addicted to crack. Once I saw her
when some friends and I went to a bar where underage kids could drink
without question. The place was a pit, and it reeked of underarms and
hot beer. Cully was working as a bar maid. She wore a short skirt and fish
net stockings. Old men slapped her on the ass and made mean remarks
about her stumpy arm. We pretended not to know each other.
I joined the debate team and the chess club. I graduated with honors.
Then I went to college and started drinking for real. Somehow, I managed
to get a degree in business. I put on a fairy tale wedding gown and married
a good looking bastard named Jim. He and I partied and fought our way
through our twenties. We cashed in my trust fund and bought a
condominium in Fort Lauderdale.
I moved back home when I was twenty nine and went into my adopted
father’s business. Now my ex is suing me for alimony. I make a lot of money
in real estate. My teeth are capped and bright white, and my face is on
billboards all over town, smiling like a fool. Cully won’t take a dime of my
money. If I mail her a check, she mails it back to me with cram it up your
ass written in big red letters across the front of the check.
Cully and I reconnected four years ago. She had just finished her last
session of rehab. Our reunion wasn’t a tearful one. We just saw each other
at the mall and started hanging out. Now we’re together most of the time.
If I don’t come around for a day, Cully calls and demands to know where the
hell I am.
But we don’t have long, meaningful conversations. We reveal ourselves
to each other cautiously and quickly, bit by bit. I told Cully about my
nervous breakdown while we were watching a sit com on television. When
we were waiting in line at the frozen yogurt stand, Cully told me she had
spent two years in jail.
Now Cully lives in public housing with her three youngest kids–two
girls and a boy. The apartment walls are thin, and we can hear people
arguing or having sex next door. Teenagers sell crack in front of the
apartments, and Cully yells at them until they leave.
Cully’s three kids are all under the age of five and have different fathers
they have never met. Cully has never gotten any child support. Two of the
fathers are dead, and she doesn’t know where the other one is. The kids are
sweet, but they’re a handful. They scream a lot and run around the
apartment, banging into walls. They leap on the kitchen counters like cats
and pour cereal all over the floor.
Five mornings a week, the kids take a little purple bus to daycare. Then
Cully takes the city bus to Wal-Mart, where she works all day. She goes to
school after work. At night, they all come home and run around the
apartment like crazy. Cully sings while she stirs spaghetti in a big, black
pot. She taught the kids how to write their names. She frames all of their
work and hangs it on the apartment wall.
In just a few minutes, Cully will have a high school diploma to hang on
her wall. The man in the green suit has finished reading his speech. The
folding chair hurts my ass. It feels like the air conditioner is completely
broken now. Cully is standing up with the other graduates, and I lean
forward to take her picture. The man in green has visible beads of sweat
running down the side of his face. He calls out the names quickly. Cully is
the last name on the list–Culletta Jean Whittaker.
Cully walks the few steps with her head held up. The man reaches out
and holds Cully’s good hand to shake it. There is an awkward moment when
he looks at her arm and is not sure where to put her diploma. Cully takes
the diploma with the three fingers on her stumpy arm and holds it up as
high as she can. Somebody behind me snickers.
I clap loudly for my dark sister. Tonight, we will go to Chuckie Cheese
to celebrate. She will show her kids how to spit wads of paper through their
straws. She will talk loudly and call me a dork. She won’t let me pay the bill.
We will go back to her apartment, and the kids will be high on
Mountain Dew. They will run and jump and break things until Cully
screams. Then they will put on their footie pajamas and settle down on her
bed, sucking their thumbs.
Cully will read a pile of books to them. The kids will fall asleep, but
Cully won’t stop reading until she finishes the last page of Good Night
Moon. When I wake up in the morning, I will be on the couch, covered with
Cully’s soft blanket. She will already be up, dressed in her Wal-Mart
uniform, ready for a brand new day.