What is it like to be white today? I’m not—but I’ve wondered for a while. The answer depends on whom you ask. Some will say it’s a blessing, like being born with a magic aura that automatically grants you exclusive rights and privileges. Others will say to be white is to be maligned incessantly, treated with an open contempt, and then laughed at for voicing the slightest complaint. What is the truth? I don’t know—it’s not such a dichotomous choice. We have intense relationships with the identities we hold dear to ourselves. I’m white, I’m Indian, I’m a Republican, I’m a progressive, I’m an artist are all manifestations of this need to identify and be a part of. And can this need be exploited through a warped discourse by bad actors who are intent on tearing apart a nation’s fabric?Continue reading ““American, White”: A Novel by Malhar Mali”
She used to be the kind of woman that drank orange seltzers when she was sick, thinkin’ it was good for her on accounts of the Vitamin C, without actually checkin’ how much of the vitamin was in the can. That was until I met her. I changed that. It’s not really the Vitamin C that’s good for you. I know it from my work at the pharmacy. It’s the zinc. That’s what’ll save you. It’ll heal you up right on quick. But she didn’t know that. She didn’t know a lot of things till she met me. But now she does. I’m good for her. I always tell her that. I always have to remind her of that. Every night. My darlin’, Maureen.
I guess I should go down and check on her. I’ll do that right now. Though she just keeps starin’ at me sometimes. It makes me angry she does that. That ain’t right. What kind of respect is that?
Sometimes he lets me read the papers. You know, so I have an idea of what’s goin’ on in the outside world. I wait for that day every week. Just so I can feel close to being real again. I don’t know why, it just makes me feel that way. When I see the angry face of a man on the front page, printed in all color, throwin’ a flamin’ bottle at someone, I feel like I know what’s goin’ on. I sniff it when he gives it to me. I feel connected. I rub it with my fingers and cherish the brittle and smooth texture. I comb through the pages as fast as I can in the times he gives me. I try to absorb it all, all the words, suck it all in in one swoop.
But then he takes it away from me. He always does. He doesn’t let me keep them at all. When he snatches it away from me, he gets a glint in his eye. Like he enjoys takin’ things from me. I can’t think straight. He always tells me every night that he’s good for me. He tells it to me every night. When he gives me a bowl of cold rice, with shredded pieces of chicken and some peas in that heavy glass bowl. He always tells me how good he is to me. How he cares. But then he takes it away from me when I’m not even done eatin’. He snatches things from me and takes them away and he gets a glint in his eye when he does it. Just like when he takes me every night.
I remind her of that when I get home from work everyday. I do good things for her. I work hard for her. But everyday I have to remind her of that. I walk around in the bunches of stupid, uncarin’, self-obsessed pieces of filth everyday for her. They all babble on about what their plans are for the weekend, what their little Beverly did, who Kennedy really is, what they think, what they want, what they need. I want it to end. I want them to end. But I don’t care. I do it all for her. And every night when I get back to mine, I have to tell her. I have to tell her that I’m good for her. Every night. Sometimes it gets annoyin’. But it ain’t her fault. She doesn’t know better. Yet. She will eventually.
And I’ll help her to it. Every night I have to tell her, “I’m real good for you, and you’re real good for me.” But she just stares. She’ll understand it eventually. By God, she had better. She’ll understand. Just like she found out it’s not really the vitamin C that makes you better, it’s the zinc. And that was because of me.
I should not have thrown that rice at him. Or try to run out past him. I know it now. That was my mistake. He’s big, so strong. But I need to leave. He’s real mad at me now. I think he mixes somethin’ in the food. He calls it minerals and supplements and tells me that it’s good for me. But it makes me feel all woozy all the time. Even in the water and juice he sometimes gives me. Makes me feel all woozy so I can’t think or run straight. He does it so I can’t fight back. And maybe so I’ll believe what he’s tellin’ me. But I have a tiny person in my head that’s yellin’ at me sayin’ to not listen to him. I gotta keep her alive. I think I do. But every time I drink somethin’ or eat somethin’ he gives me it feels like I’m killin’ that person in my head. But it’s all I’ve got. I can’t go hungry. I can only for a little while but after a few days the pinch in my belly gets so tight that it dulls its way up my chest and spreads itself over my body. I can’t handle that for long.
But then he always shows up. With the chicken, rice, and the peas, and with that glint in his eyes, lookin’ all excited. I eat it and start to feel more woozy. And then he takes me. Every night he takes me. And after that he always tells me how I’m good for him. And he’s good for me. I can’t even remember how long its been down here for me. But now I have somethin’ in here. Finally. Somethin’ that I have over him.
Tonight she tried somethin’. I was down in her room with her, watchin’ her eat her peas and chicken, gettin’ excited, when she threw it in my face. She tried to run past me. I got mad. I showed her. I can’t believe she would do that to me. After everythin’ I done for her. I feed her and love her every night. I can’t believe she would do that to me. The only thing I look forward to is spendin’ time with her when I’m at the house. It’s all I look forward to. All I dream about. Sometimes, when I think of her too much I walk into the bathroom and touch myself. I know mama used to say that the Lord’s watchin’ when I do that. But I hope he forgives me. It’s because I love her. And it feels so good. I love her for sure. But she has to learn. She has to learn I’m good for her. I’m big and she’s little so it doesn’t matter. I might not let her have the paper this week. Just to show her. She’s gotta understand that I’m good for her. She will eventually. Just like she understood that it’s not really the vitamin C that’s good for her. It’s the zinc.
He wraps it usually. But one time it broke. I think it did. And maybe there is a God because he gave me somethin’ that I can use over him. It’s been a few months but I can feel somethin’ growin’ inside o’ my belly. I haven’t told him yet. I’ll hold it over him. Maybe I should have prayed more to him. My Momma always used to tell me I wouldn’t go to heaven if I did some nasty things. I wonder if she thinks what I’m doin’ now is nasty. But I can’t help it; I don’t want to do it. He makes me. I wonder if God cares. I prayed in here to him for the first few weeks. Prayed everyday and tried my darnded hardest to remember them verses those preachers used to teach us.
Everyday I prayed that he would save me. But he didn’t listen. I guess he did now. It must have been him that broke it and made this grow in my belly. Or maybe it was just chance. It was probably God, though. I’ll never get into heaven if I think like that.
She’s been actin’ kinda funny. When I was down there earlier feedin’ her she just kept starin’ at me. Starin’ like I was some Lucifer. Can you believe it? After all I do for her and after all the months she starts actin’ funny. That ain’t right. That ain’t right at all. I just know it.
So I says to her, “what you lookin’ at me for like that?” And she has the nerve to say nothin’ back. Just keep on starin’ at me with them fat eyes. No respect. Isn’t a wife supposed to treat her husband with respect? Well, I ain’t her husband yet. But that just ain’t right. I think I’m gonna marry her soon. I’ll ask her soon. I even have the ring. It’s mama’s ring.
I can see the little changes in her when I deal with her that makes me think that somethin’ funny’s up. But I’m not sure. I’m runnin’ out of what I put in her food. I need to get some more. But I have to be careful. I play nice with them all over there in my place of work. But I have to be careful. I smile, put on like I’m a good fella. I mean I am one. I am a good fella because of how I treat her. Maureen. I treat her really well. I feed her every night. I bring her a paper once a week. I love her every night. See, I am a good fella.
But tomorrow I need to make sure I bring home some extra of that stuff. It’s not really one thing, but it’s a combination of things that I mix up together. I knew goin’ to college was good for something. I felt sick when I was there. Sick for five years. But I feel good now. Because I got me a good job, and I got some knowledge on how to do some things too.
Yes. For sure I know now. I know that somethin’s growin’ inside of me. At first I thought it was God playin’ a nasty trick. Like he was playin’ with my thoughts and feelins’. I don’t know why God does that sometimes. I think it’s a test. A test to see if I deserve to be in heaven. It’s too hard though. I cry for a lot of the day in my room. I try not to but it’s hard though. But whenever I hear him clompin’ around upstairs I always make sure to stop cryin’. I always do and I always will. I’ll never give him that pleasure of seein’ me cry. Besides, he gets angry with me when he sees me like that. He always reminds me how he’s takin’ care of me and how good I am for him. And also more importantly how good he is to me. How much he cares for me. How much he loves me. But I’ll never give him the pleasure of seein’ me cry.
I was the most intelligent one in my class. Smartest of the lot of little ones. It was all too easy for me. God, I want a little one of my own. A little Graham or a little Maureen. I handled them equations that the teachers sent at me. No problem. It was an all white school. Thank God for that. None of them other types was allowed in. I think that’s why I learnt so good. The teachers always used to tell me how successful I would be.
And I am successful. Because I went off to college. How many can say that? And now I found someone that I love. And she loves me too, I think. Or at least she’ll come to love me in the end. She’ll just have to change her mind and I’ll have to show her. I’ll have to tell her everyday.
My mama doesn’t know about her. I don’t think it’s a good idea if I do tell her. Or maybe I should. She might be happy if tell her. But then again she ain’t been happy with me for the past couple years. She used to smell pretty bad but she doesn’t no more. It’s because of what I put on her. I knew my education and my job at the pharmacy is good for somethin’.
Oh God I can hear him comin’ down them stairs. His weight makes em’ creak real loud. Here he comes, oh God.
“Hey, Maureen. You hungry? I got you a paper.”
I try not to stare at him too much. I know he got real angry at me last time when I just kept on starin’ at him. I do it so I can show him that I ain’t scared o’ him. I ain’t like that. He thinks he can just scare me by bein’ so big and all.
“You lose your hearin’ down here or somethin’? You hungry or what?”
My belly rumbles but I ain’t sayin’ nothin’. I just stare at the ground. But I gotta think of the baby too. Oh, but I’m hungry. Still, I ain’t gonna say nothin’.
“All right suit yerself.” He’s still standin’ in the same spot. I can feel his eyes on me. Oh God, I wonder if he can tell my belly’s got a bump. He can’t find out. I gotta figure somethin’ out first. I gotta find a way to use this. I don’t wanna look up at him. If I do he gets all excited.
“So how was yer day?”
I don’t want to talk to him. But I know if I don’t, he’ll get angry. “What’s the matter? Ain’t you gonna say somethin?”
I can feel the anger in his voice. It’s bubblin on up. He usually gets like that when I don’t talk to him or show him any respect. He gets scary.
“Nothin, Graham,” I say back to him. “I was just thinkin bout some stuff I read in the paper. When can I… when can I read it again?”
He doesn’t answer for a couple of seconds. I can hear him lickin’ his lips, like he does when he gets all excited. Oh God.
“You can read it again when you start eatin’ the food I make for you.”
I don’t know what to say to that. I don’t wanna eat the food he makes for me. It makes it easier for him to have his way with me and do those things to me. “When can I have a bath?” I ask him, just to change the subject of what’s goin’ on. So he doesn’t make me eat the food he’s been preppin’. But God, I am so hungry.
I can hear him lickin’ his lips again. “Take off yer skirt,” he says. I just keep lookin’ down at the ground. I have to.
“What’s the matter? You lose your hearin’ down here or somethin’?”
I think somethin’s wrong with her. Maureen. Really wrong. She keeps on throwin’ up and she looks real skinny and all. God, I love her so much. But she looks like she’s in some real trouble. I wonder if I should talk to momma and ask her for what she thinks? But I ain’t talked to her in a while now. And she doesn’t say much either. I don’t think she’d be happy with what I’m doin’ to Maureen. But she doesn’t understand. None of them would understand if I was to tell them. They just don’t understand how much it is that I love her. I think I’ll ask them people that I work with. But then again, they are so annoyin’, always talkin’ about stupid things that don’t matter to no one and nobody. Who cares about what they have to think? No, she’ll be fine. Maureen will be all right. I think tonight I might give her the paper.
But I’ll only do it after she eats what I made for her. I don’t understand why she doesn’t want to eat what I make for her. I put a lot of thought into that food I make. Takes a long time to fix up the minerals and supplements I add to her food. I gotta be real careful with it—if I mess up the proportions then it could be real bad. Maybe I should lay off them supplements for a few weeks. Maybe it’s that what is makin’ her sick and throw up all the time. Yeah, I think I’ll do that. Just for a little while.
Here he comes. Clankin’ on down the stairs. Makin’ em’ creak real loud. Oh God. I’m so hungry. I haven’t eaten in so long. But I can’t eat what he gives me. It makes me feel so woozy in my head. I can tell he’s gettin’ madder and madder at me. He doesn’t like it when I don’t listen to him and don’t do what he wants me to do. He always says that I ain’t showin’ him any respect.
“I got you some food here if you want it,” he says.
I don’t say nothin’. I need to eat though. I’m so hungry.
“What’s the matter wit you? Ain’t you hungry? You ain’t been eatin’ nothin’ down here.”
I’m not gonna say nothin’. I just need to figure out how to use this against him. This bump that I have in my belly. This little life. This present that God gifted to me to use against him.
“I didn’t put any minerals and supplements in it. I reckon you need a little break from them. Sometimes too many minerals and supplements can be not good for you either. I figured it out. That’s probably why you’ve been throwin’ up so much all these past few weeks. It’s yer favorite: chicken, rice, and peas. You want some?”
Thank you, God. Thank you for keepin’ this a secret from him and not lettin’ him find out.
“What’s the matter, Maureen? Didn’t you hear me? You hungry or what? You losin’ your hearin’ down here or somethin’?”
I look up to stare into his eyes. The glint isn’t there. Maybe I’m safe for now.
He’s holdin’ the paper too. He must have recognized that I saw it because he says, “That’s right, darlin’, I even got you the paper.” He smiles, puts down the paper and food, and comes at me and wraps me up with his thick arms. I can smell him. Smells like Dettol, sweat, and ham that’s been left outta the ice box for too long. I have to smell him almost every night. I can feel it comin’ up. The water in my stomach. I need to find a way to leave. I need to get away. The little voice in my head, she’s tellin’ me to run away.
“Come on, Maureen, go on. Eat some.” I nod.
“I promise. It ain’t got no minerals and supplements in it. I promise. See how much I care about you? See how much I think and worry about you? I had to work real hard to figure it out but I think that’s it. Too much of a good thing can be bad as well. See how good I am for you? See how much I love you?”
I know if I don’t say nothin he’s right in his mind to get mad and angry at me. If I don’t show him any respect. So I say to him, “Thank you, Graham.”
“No problem, darlin. No problem.”
It took a while for me to call him by his first name. He used to tell me all the time that he expects me to call him by that name. I didn’t even know him. But he made me call him by it, and if I didn’t say it real sweet like I really cared for him he would get real angry at me. I practiced it, though. I practiced and even if I hate him and want him to rot in hell, whenever I say his name it comes out nice and sweet like I really do care for him.
He lays the bowl down in front of me. It’s a heavy glass bowl. There’s a spoon too. That’s nice. I hold off but I can’t help it no more, the smell of it is too much. I start shovin’ the food into my mouth. And he’s right. It tastes a little different now. It doesn’t have that odd taste to it. Oh God, it’s so good. I’m nearly finished it all. I have a few bites left.
“All right, darlin’, that’s enough,” he says. “Don’t want you to get all sick again from eatin’ too much, don’t you agree? Huh, Maureen?”
“No no, darlin’. That’s enough.”
He always takes it away from me before I finish. And he likes takin’ it too. What I’d do for those last two bites. At least the rice, chicken, and peas don’t have the minerals and supplements in it. I hope so. My mouth is dry. I need some water soon.
“You wanna read the paper, Maureen?”
I look up and into his eyes and suddenly I’m scared. I used to think that after a few weeks I would not be scared no more. But when I look into them they still scare me. Especially when they have that glint in them. Like they do now.
I think I’ll ask her to marry me soon. I mean I’ve been treatin’ her so well. I already have the ring. Maybe next time I bring her the paper and some food I’ll do it. I’m so nervous about it. Wish I could talk to my mama about it. But I don’t know if she’ll even approve. She always used to tell me when I was little that I would get the prettiest of girls in the town. Maureen is pretty all right. Just in her own way. Just thinkin’ bout how pretty she is gets me excited. She used to be a little better lookin’ before she met me though. Or before she started livin’ with me. It’s all right. It’s what my mama said happens to people when they get comfortable with someone. She said they kind of let themselves go a lil’ bit. Like it don’t matter to them anymore. But maybe I ought to find a way to make her eat more. She just ain’t eatin’ a lot. Yeah. I think tomorrow I’ll do it.
I’m gonna ask to marry her. I already have the ring. It’s the one mama used to wear. But now I’m gonna put it on Maureen’s finger tomorrow. I mean she has to say yes. After all the nice things I do for her and how kind I am to her. How good I am for her. I stopped tellin’ her that every night. I think she knows now. She doesn’t say much. Just stares at the ground and sometimes stares at me.
I can hear him clompin’ around upstairs. I hear him all right. I’ve been eatin’ good. I feel good. He said he was gonna stop puttin’ those minerals and supplements in my food, and I think that he has. The food don’t have that different taste anymore. But I wish he gave me more than rice, chicken, and peas. I asked him once. Must have been nigh on two months ago when I asked him. He got real mad. Real angry. I was scared. He told me that what he gives me has all three groups of food or somethin’ like that. He told me rice, chicken, and peas was all someone needed to eat to survive and be healthy.
I can feel it in my belly. He has to know by now. I’m lucky he only asks me to take off my skirt. Otherwise I think he’d know for sure. It’s amazin’ what God is capable of doin’ with all his powers and abilities. He created this little thing inside of me.
Amazin’. I used to think he was not real. I used to pray to him everyday to save me from down here for the first couple of months. But he didn’t do nothin’. But now he has. I was wrong to doubt him. I wouldn’t have gotten into heaven if I kept thinkin’ like that. And now he gave me this present.
Here he comes, makin’ them stairs creak on his way down. Oh God.
“Maureen, darlin, how you doin’ tonight? Hungry? I got you some more food. No minerals and supplements. I promise. Got a lotta water here for you as well. See? Don’t I look after you? Don’t you see how good I am you?”
He’s just lookin’ at me right now. I can tell. He’s not movin’. Just standin’ at the bottom of the stairs. Lookin’ at me.
“God, you’re beautiful,” he says. I don’t say nothin’.
After a couple moments, he says, “What’s the matter? You lose your hearin’ down here or somethin’? I said you’re beautiful. You’re supposed to respect it when people say nice things to you.”
“I’m… I’m sorry, Graham. Thank you. Thank you.”
“Aww, Maureen, don’t get scared. I was only complimentin’ you. Just sayin’ how beautiful you is.”
If I don’t say anythin’ I know he’ll get mad. “Th-thank you, Graham.” “Well, go on, here’s your food and water. No minerals and supplements. I promise.”
He walks over and lays the bowl and glass down next to me. I grab it and start eatin’. He keeps lookin’ at me, lickin’ his lips.
He’s watchin’ me eat. Just watchin’ me as I chew on them peas, and rice, and chicken. Not sayin’ anythin’.
I have two bites left. What’s the point. He’s gonna take the bowl away. Snatch it from me. Like he does every time.
“Go on,” he says. “Finish it.”
I look up into him. He’s smilin’ at me. And that scares me the most of all the times I’ve been scared of him.
“Go on,” he says again. “Finish up your food. It don’t have the extra stuff so it’s fine.”
He keeps lookin’ at me and smilin’. I eat it slowly. Not sure if he’s playin’ some nasty trick on me. I look at him between each bite. He’s still smilin’ at me. Oh God.
“There you go, darlin’. See much I care bout you? How good I am for you?” I nod.
He comes closer and I can smell the sweat and Dettol on his body. Oh god. He’s smackin’ his lips and starin’ at me. I don’t know what to do. He just keeps lookin’ at me.
“Maureen,” he says, after a good minute’s passed. “Maureen I need to ask you somethin.”
I look up from the floor and to him. He’s on one knee. Oh God.
“Maureen, I know this life here we have ain’t much. But… but… will you marry me?”
I don’t say nothin’. What am I supposed to say to that. That person inside o’ my head tells me to be careful. And suddenly, somethin’ starts bubblin in my stomach. Like someone’s left a big vat of water in it and then forgo to turn off the heat. It just keeps bubblin’ and boilin’. And I know if I don’t say nothin’ he’s gonna be madder than anythin’ ever before.
So I say to him, “I’m pregnant, Graham.”
His eyes shine. I’ve never seen that before in his. Usually I just see a nasty glint or emptiness. But I’ve never seen what’s in them now. They’re lit up. Like them little lights people put on in Christmas. He’s just starin’ at me and I don’t know what to do because I got the glass bowl in my hands and he keeps lickin’ him lips. Like he’s unsure of what to do.
“Maureen!” he yells. He comes over and puts his head up against my belly and starts cryin’. I think he’s cryin’. Oh God. I don’t know what to do. God. Please tell me. Please. “Maureen! A baby. A new little one! Maureen! Us together. It’s perfect. Marry me, Maureen, marry me.”
I taste the food comin’ up outta my stomach. Oh god. I have to do somethin now. The person in my head, she tells me. So I do what she says. I smash the glass bowl over his head as hard as I can swing it. It shatters.
There’s glass everywhere. I shove him off me and run. Run up the stairs. They creak under my footsteps. I’m feelin’ light headed but I can’t stop now. I can’t stop. I come out in a hallway. I don’t remember this. Don’t think I was conscious. It’s been months. I go left and run into an end. No way out.
Oh God. Oh God, he’s comin’. I go the other way. There’s a kitchen. And a door. I try to open it but I keep fiddlin’ with the chain on the inside. The blood comin’ out of my hands makes it slippery.
Oh God, he’s angry. I keep fiddlin’. Just through this door. Through this door and to the other side. I can hear him creakin’ up the stairs. Real slow though.
“Where you goin, Maureen? Huh? Ain’t I been treatin’ you good? Real good?
Just because you get off your vitamins and minerals don’t mean nothin. I BEEN TREATIN’ YOU REAL GOOD.”
So much blood on the chain. It keeps slippin’ out of my hand. Oh God, just give me this one more favor. I’m feelin’ woozy. Please God. The chain clicks out and I yank the doorknob. Light flashes me. It’s so bright. I can’t see nothin’.
“Maureen! This ain’t right! MAUREEN!”
He’s here. I have to do this. I gotta go outside. But it’s so bright I can’t see anythin’. I have to now. I gotta trust that person in my head. Otherwise I’ll be down there forever. Forever in his basement. I have to do it. I have to trust God.
I step outside and close the door behind me. And start hobblin’ forward. There’s nothin’ around. Nothin’ I can see. Oh God. I can’t see any other houses. No one else is here. There’s just grass and a river. But I see somethin’ in the distance. I can’t see well. Some buildins’. I need to run there.
Oh God. I need to go. If I don’t I’ll be back down there. I can’t handle that. I need to use this.
I hear a strange squeakin’ sound. It’s gettin’ closer but I can’t tell from where it’s comin’.
“Hey Lady. You alright? You’re bleedin?” It’s a little boy’s voice. Maybe nine or ten. I can’t see out here. Oh God. It’s too bright. Ridin’ a squeaky little bicycle, I think.
“Help me. Please. Help me.”