I must have spent five minutes going through Michelle’s kitchen looking for a grocery bag. As I searched, I felt the rubber band around my wrist, pulling on my body hairs. The kitchen smelled of grease and cigarette smoke. When I found the bag — on a hook on the closet door, near the recycling bin — the feel and the sound of the plastic made me feel strong, as strong as Fay had been, before she became enslaved.
It was 3:00 in the morning. I would have to go to sleep eventually. On waking up, I might remain William Berkman, honor student at Winter Hill Middle School. Or I might become Michelle Unwilliam Proudhon, the slave of Michelle Proudhon. Or I could choose to not wake up at all.
Our gym teacher tried to teach us about slavery last fall. On that day, during sixth period, two dozen sixth graders were crowded into a bare, stuffy classroom that felt like a closet. The gym teacher, Mrs. O’Malley, seemed uncomfortable off the athletic field. I sat next to Fay, my twin sister.
“What happens,” Mrs. O’Malley asked us, “before somebody is enslaved?”
Fay’s hand shot up before anyone else’s. Mirs. O’Malley pointed to her. None of the other teachers would have done that. They would keep Fay waiting for as long as thirty seconds and encourage other students to raise their hands.
“Your hypothalamus makes a hormone…” She kept her left hand up while rubbing her forehead with the right, trying to remember the name.
Mrs. O’Malley, who had written hypothalumus on the blackboard, was looking at Fay, perplexed.
“Alpha serivase,” Fay said. “That makes you stay asleep — actually, it’s not really sleep, it’s a coma, you can tell the difference because the skin is cool and the pupils stay dilated if you shine a flashlight into them. Then the thyroid gland makes beta serivase, which makes the brain…” Her voice trailed off again as she tried to remember what beta serivase did to the brain. She rose slightly from her seat, so she wasn’t sitting on her hair anymore, and brushed the hair to one side.
A girl behind us interrupted. “My grandmother says if you want to be enslaved, you should sleep with your feet towards the door. I have three cousins who did that, and they all got enslaved.”
As Mrs. O’Malley turned to write, Fay shot back, “That’s not true.”
“If you have the Heterozygous Gene, you go through puberty, and if you have the Homozygous Gene, you get enslaved. That’s the way it is for every person, every mammal in the world, and anyone who thinks differently doesn’t know shit about science and might as well be living in a cave.”
“You bitch,” said the girl. I couldn’t remember her name. She had a long, angular face, hair in lots of small tight braids, and a sweatshirt covered with rhinestones.
With one motion, Fay reached into her shoulder bag, pulled out a wooden ruler, stood, and turned around. Both of us had skipped a grade, so Fay was the shortest girl in all of her classes, and she was overweight as well — but she knew how to make herself look dangerous.
The class went downhill from there.
We thought we knew about slavery. My father was the Abram Berkman, head of the Department of Servopsychology at Harvard Medical School. Fay and I had been raised by slaves, since our mother died when we were babies. Our brother Unharry had dropped out of school to take care of us. Unlouise helped Dad in his research, and Unleon worked for a Federal Judge. Our oldest sister, Unjoan, died before we were born; Dad never told us how.
Dad bought every kid’s book about slavery in the bookstores, and Unharry read them to us over and over. Fay and I can even read some of the college textbooks. During the times when he didn’t have a girlfriend, Dad would sit patiently with us for hours, explaining the things we didn’t understand.
Fay never had many friends. The boy who sits next to me in English told me that a lot of kids in our grade hoped she went through puberty so she would embarrass herself in front of everyone with periods and tits-out-to-here and lust and uncomfortable clothes. Even Cesar Malatesta, the closest thing she ever had to a boyfriend, would only meet her in secret, and they had me deliver all of their letters to one another; if the other boys in the sixth grade had found out that Cesar had a crush on Fay, he would never have lived it down. Fortunately, that never became a problem for him, since he became enslaved.
Cesar’s memorial was scheduled for the afternoon before Halloween. Everyone in the sixth grade was invited, so Fay felt safe coming — although she dawdled in the library after school, so she wouldn’t be going with any of the other kids, and so she’d miss the boring church ceremony.
We walked from school to the trolley stop, with our jackets knotted around our waists. (October is the most frustrating season of the year, because the weather is freezing cold in the morning and springlike in the afternoon, so no matter how you dress for school, you’ll be uncomfortable at some point.) With nobody else in earshot but me, Fay talked on and on about Cesar, saying the things she hadn’t told me about him when he was free. “He wanted to be a musician. He put aside part of his allowance every week for a year, without telling his parents, and saved up enough to buy a used guitar through a classified ad. When his parents saw it, they made him turn it in for a refunc. They were always after him to do something ‘practical’…”
I was too self-absorbed to pay much attention to her. I felt a little happy that Cesar was enslaved, because Fay might stop obsessing over him and spend more time with me, like she did two years ago. Then I felt guilty for feeling happy. Then I thought that Fay might go into puberty instead of becoming enslaved, in which case she would have boyfriends for real. I didn’t understand the way she talked and acted around Cesar, and I was afraid that puberty would only make her worse.
The church was a wooden building, smaller than a single-family house, with narrow, unstained windows. We arrived just in time to hear the priest say “As this slave will serve his mistress and her heirs until the end of his life, so may we all serve our Lord Jesus Christ.” We let a few dozens of Cesar’s relatives stream past us, and followed them to a graveyard, behind the church, to bury Cesar’s coffin. When it was my turn to throw a pile of dirt in, a thin layer of topsoil covered the lid, so I couldn’t see the grain of the wood. I wondered what was inside. Cesar’s favorite books, clothes, and toys, probably. And, according to everyone but Fay, his ghost.
At the reception in the Malatesta’s apartment, I felt stifled by the close-packed black-suited relatives and the cigarette smoke. Uncesar Malatesta sat on a couch in the back of the room, with his mother’s arm around his shoulders. He was wearing a white satin memorial gown; a flock of embroidered birds, in single file, flew around his broad cuffs.
Fay said “Congratulations” to Uncesar in her most quiet and formal voice, as if she were visiting him only out of a sense of duty to her class.
Michelle Proudhon, a woman who works with my father, stood on the other side of Cesar. She wore her nurse’s uniform, blinding white against her black skin. “What are you doing here? Uh, congratulations,” I added to Uncesar.
Uncesar put both of his hands around one of Fay’s and shook. “Thanks a lot.”
Michelle handed me a sheet of paper. “I’m doing a survey for one of my public health classes on how people react when a friend or relative is enslaved. Want one, chief?”
“Oh, I didn’t know Cesar very well.” Fay looked at the paper as if it were a bomb, so I just passed it back to Michelle. What else could I say to Uncesar? “What are you going to do now?”
“Work in the house,” he said. “Help milady take care of the other kids.”
Fay told Mrs. Malatesta, “You should send him to school.”
Uncesar’s mother smiled, as if Fay were a five year old who had said something stupid but cute. “There’s enough here to keep him busy.” As she talked, Uncesar stared at her face as if nothing else in the world mattered. She drew a cigarette out of her pocket and Uncesar lit it; he had reached into his gown’s pocket for the lighter as his mistress fumbled in her purse for a pack of cigarettes as if he had read her mind.
A couple weeks later as we were doing homework, Unharry knocked on our bedroom door. “Yeah,” said Fay. She lay aside her math textbook and climbed down from the bunk bed as Unharry opened the door.
Unharry was holding a stack of five-by-eight inch paper, unlined, with writing on it. Fay snatched the papers from his hand and held them to her chest so I couldn’t read the top sheet.
“Mrs. Malatesta just came by and dropped these off,” Unharry said. They must have been the letters Fay had written Cesar for months — the letters I had delivered unread. Unharry put his hand on Fay’s shoulder. “Are you OK?”
“She didn’t give back the envelopes.” Fay’s voice was shaking. “She didn’t ask Uncesar to give them back to me. She didn’t even bury the letters with Cesar. She read them. All my — ” Fay sniffed, wiped her nose, and then pushed past Unharry to the door. “I’m going out.”
I didn’t see Fay again until dinner. Later, as we were laying in our bunks, alone in our room again, she said, “I burned the letters.” From her tone, it seemed like she thought I had been itching to ask her about the letters all evening. To be honest, I had been.
I didn’t know how to respond.
“It’s better that Cesar was enslaved,” Fay went on. “I cared about him too much. I lost control. But now, that’s in the past. It’s just a phase I went through.” She used the calm, cold voice that she always used when she tried to lie to me.
(continued in two weeks)
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