All Things Bitter and Ugly by Khalilah Osaka

Full maroon lips blotted by the paper cup I drink from, quiver before words leave my mouth. My fingers slip behind my back to tuck my blouse into the waist of my plaid skirt which hitches up when I bend down to pick up pennies and paper clips. I’m told not to show a man my slip which has bunched up at my behind. My stockings have run up the backs of my ankles and are tucked snug in my polished Mary Janes. A beastly man with gray whiskers on his chin points at me to turn around for him with a disgusted gesture and I step on my heels on the way. An older woman chuckles as she punches a number into the telephone to talk to a customer on the other end.

My knees hit the carpet and more pennies fall from my pockets. The woman reaches for the receiver while whispering “please hold” into the speaker. With a grunt he yanks my ruffled collar —and yelps at jabbing his thumb into the pin of my name tag.

“Betty clean this up”, he yaps at a pale woman flustered at the request. I realize that the ‘this’ he talks about is me. She signs off a yellow slip and I swore I lost the job. A black ballpoint pen with a bronze tip furiously scribbled words I couldn’t read, but my wandering eyes caught a glimmer off of an amber wrapper in a bowl full of peppermints.

Amy’s Honey Lozenge wrappers! I remember finding them in my father’s ashtrays and between the sofa cushions when I was growing up. Uncle Quint complained of that sofa being infested by bed bugs just before being diagnosed with Dementia. There was never anything wrong with the couch, but we ended up lugging it down to the warehouse on 42nd street when my mother got tired of the color.  She hated the color yellow.

With lozenges tucked in my bra, I took the yellow slip home to my man, Leroy. Leroy Johnson.

He never came home and daybreak wasn’t waiting for his arrival, only me, a fool for pouring sugar into his mug of black coffee or spreading marmalade on his toast. I never understood how bitter things pleased him. I would have used strawberry jam if it didn’t cost me something as scarring as the scolding grits he poured on my scalp the day I had lost the baby.

I found myself that morning laid out on the floral tablecloth on the kitchen table, swatting away fruit flies that buzzed in my ear for sweet things like maple sap and molasses middles of pies with no pecans. My blouse was unbuttoned to the point of my sleeves slipping off my shoulder blades, but the breeze refreshed the bare skin of me that never got chances to breathe. Only alone do I discover my true self, insecure without a man by my side who lives separate lives of both a preacher’s son and a wife beater, one who put me on trial for murdering my own son.

The flies buzz over to the toast I’ve spread tart jam on while I pick up a navy sweater from the closet which conceals the outfit I picked out for yesterday’s interview, but I know everyone’s watching and wishing I’d take care of myself.  Or maybe that’s just shame I see toward my being oblivious when they don’t yet understand that I’ve seen what they feel I haven’t. It only comforts me to think I’m stronger for tolerating abuse.

Every day I catch the bus on Montro Street. They walk past the open seat beside me because they think I won’t hear and I don’t, but my eyes focus on the countryside. Grandpop told us about how he’d always wanted to grow his crops in vast lands where nothing challenged its path to bloom. My eyes look out amongst the fields which always looked to me as if the horizon dipped down to meet the cornfields at their husks. Mindlessly letting my mind wander distracted me from familiar footprints dug deep into the red clay earth and soon the beauty of farmland vanished from the rolling tape you watch of telephone poles passing you by. Drunk and tipsy with my father’s cane waving at a young lady’s behind from the jazz club, I see Lester chases after women, thirsty for his love. I’ve caught a glimpse as long as I’m allowed, but I want more time. “Next stop, Huffington Banks”, says Reverend Brooks from the wheel.  Before standing up from my seat I wipe sweat, which starts to seep into my collar. Moist skin from sweat and tears was an indication of fear. I had fabricated truths of my own for so long I couldn’t even grasp reality. Maybe that’s how it needed to be, to help me realize 15 years with that man meant I knew him like the back of my hand.

Brooks always pulled the brakes at the corner of 32nd and Providence. I jolted forward in my booth and mud sprinkled onto the lace fringe on the young woman’s Bobbi socks wrote the yellow slip yesterday. She stomps her cigarette into a puddle and applies a thick coat of gloss and blush when seeing her reflection. Reverend Brooks waves to her behind switching in an olive pencil skirt.

I’m back to the tainted water jug, canvas lamp shades, humped backs crouched over humming machines all muddled behind billowing clouds of cigar smoke protruding from the boss’s door. The woman I watched outside turns as if she expected I’d follow her in. Betty, I remember now was what the man called her by. “It’s Becky”, she mutters under her stale breathe, almost correcting my thought, or perhaps just the man I remembered from yesterday’s altercation. “Do you have your yellow slip”, Becky yaps waving one before my eyes which are suddenly fixed on identical polyester dresses getting fed into the path of the jabbing needle. I pull the crumbled version of what she wants out from the navy cardigan, she must have noticed I wore yesterday. Along with my white blouse, plaid zipper skirt, run stockings, Mary Jane’s, and pressed curls clipped up by a dragonfly pin. She examines me and the slip as if she doesn’t remember picking up the remaining pennies and paper clips from my purse that lay scattered on the floor. “Sit down there, and don’t say a word when-“. The door with squeaky hinges swings open and my knees failed me. Head bowed, petal steadily pushed, I looked like the rest of them. He approaches my heels which are sticking out from beneath the shadow of my station poked out into the aisle. Opening his mouth which decayed from burnt tobacco leaves and Butterscotch krimpets for lunch, the pungent smell of scotch is spat on my face when I forget to look him in the eye. I see the Lester I saw minutes ago with that lady from the jazz club up under him like his “boo.” Soulless. I had only begun the collar on my polyester dress, but I grabbed my purse, two more of Amy’s Honey Lozenges, and a daisy off of Becky’s desk for my empty vase on the kitchen table. My footsteps echoed down the hall and I knew by then everyone had caught a glimpse of the skin on my ankle peeking through the runs in my stockings. I thought I was again imagining footsteps that followed me back onto the red clay earth I thought I left, back into a world we all knew we were nothing but a faceless piece of trash who’d unbutton her shirt for any Mister who crossed her path. I looked back at the woman with dime size frame glasses who now had a name. Ayuana, Ayuana Jenkins, and Becky Mossing.