Mama’s mouth is moving a mile a minute.
“Can you believe where he told me he’d been, girl?” she asks her friend, but the woman doesn’t have a chance to respond before Mama blurts out, “Church.”
“Girl, no,” her friend says with a gasp.
We’re at the Pancake House on Highway 171, the main drag in DeRidder. McDonald’s and Burger King haven’t burst into town yet, so this little business still has a few more years on her. Joli is sitting directly across from Mama, cradling my baby sister Dena. I’m sitting in a plastic brown booster chair next to Mama, who stops talking long enough to bring a forkful of French toast to my mouth. I keep my lips tight and shake my head. I like my toast crunchy, not soggy. She puts the spongy food into her own mouth and kicks back up with her talking.
“I told him, ‘Look, I might’ve been born in the boondocks, but I am nobody’s fool.’…”
Bored, I scan the restaurant. My eyes fall on a man sitting in the booth next to ours.
His skin is unlike mine, unlike my mama’s, unlike my daddy’s, unlike most of the folks I know. Not only that—because I’ve seen skin like his before—but it’s something else about this man; it must be all that hair on his face. He catches me looking at him and stares back at me. His hard stare sets off the trembling in the bony knots protruding from my knees. “Baby, you’ve got some funny looking kneecaps,” Mama told me once. She said I came out of her shaking. I haven’t stopped. Whenever I think I can control it, I come across something crazy or strange or scary, and my knees start to feel like a rubber band is inside each of them. A rubber band someone has stretched to its limit and is plucking, plucking.
The man is eating his sausage but he won’t stop looking at me. I soak up his face, his bushy eyebrows, his matching reddish-brown beard, his light green eyes. My gaze sweeps across to his left ear, along his thick hairy jaw line, down to his wide neck, and to the huge knot in the middle of it, thinly covered by red-tinged skin. The knot is not unlike the knots of my knees. I watch it move up and down, up and down, the outline of sausage moving around it. My eyes hike back up to the man’s lips, buried in all that hair. He cranks open his mouth in a grin. I see his big and blunt teeth, the color of scrambled eggs. My eyes trail slowly around his nose, up his left cheek and back into his eyes. Eyes that are a darker green now, smaller.
The man shakes his head as if I have asked him a question. Yes, the head says, Yes, the eyes say, Yes, the round mouth says: We want your knees, We want your knees, We want your knees.
I feel my knees pulling, pulling toward this greed. Fear stabs my chest. I have to stop this man and his power over my knees. I bet this is what he does all day: look for little girls with strong hard knees, and maybe I’m his next victim, and maybe after he’s finished with me, he’ll eat my sister’s knees too. Last time I checked, Joli was still holding her, where she sleeps in her lap, looking like an angel with eyelashes that curl back to touch her upper lids. I know she is no angel. And on second thought, I don’t think the man would want her knees because her legs are covered in fat, the knots in her knees not fully formed and good and hard like mine.
I remember Mama telling me I have skin like Sugar Babies, her favorite caramel candy, and knees like Milk Duds, but she didn’t tell me someone would someday want to swallow them whole.
Every thing in here is hot hot—the sizzle and smell of grease; the bacon breath blowing from the mouths of diners; the lights burning down on my scalp like twelve Louisiana suns. Someone yells out, Hey, you—over here, and I want so badly to turn my head, so desperately to twist my neck in the direction of that friendly voice because maybe, just maybe, it is calling out to me. But I cannot turn, cannot look away from the red fur and green fire that is this man.
I want my knees. I want my Mama.
Something thick and heavy begins forming at the bottom of my belly, building, rolling over until it rushes past my lips. Except it comes out long and thin, a pathetic wail, an unimpressive mist of the pressure inside me.
My mother stops talking to Joli. “Child, what is wrong with you?” she asks sharply.
I am still staring at the man, pointing with my eyes: Him, Mama, Him.
The man purses his lips. “Poor little girl—Am I that ugly? I was just saying hello to ya.”
“Oh, Sand, see—the man was just being nice. Now be nice back.” She wipes my face with a stiff napkin, and then leans across me to speak to the man. “She’s funny acting like that, sir. Hopefully, one day, she’ll grow out of it.”
Teetering on the cliff of hyperventilation, I think: My own mother is in on it. I remember again what she said about my skin. She is near ready to give this man my knees, her own child. I look at her through my last two drops of tears and feel something hardening in my chest like a knot. Where is Daddy?
If only I was strong and big like my daddy. I’d stand up and stride over to that man and force him to up-chuck all the little knots hiding in his throat. As they tumbled out, I’d pick them up one by one, stuff them into my emerald-green velvet sack, and hand-deliver them to all the little girls with big gaping holes in their confidence, their esteem, their dignity.