Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

Moonshine Daiquiris

 

Mimi and I have been tight since the fourth grade when I helped her cheat on a spelling test and she threatened to kick Tariq Wilson’s ass after he said my hair was so nappy it broke the hot comb at Miss Darlene’s. So when she called that Friday night not long after I moved back to Memphis, I picked up the phone before the second ring.

“Meet my new friends, Nessa.” Mimi slurred into the mouthpiece.  “We’ll play some spades, drink a little something, smoke a little something. Mama’s got the boys so we can stay up all night long, just like in the old days.”

After I said “yes” she asked me to stop by Joe’s and pick up the hot wings she ordered. Same old Mimi: She buys, I pay.

“You’re good for it, Big Money,” she said. “Pick up a couple of them frozen daiquiri mixes. I’ll make it worth your while.”

Which in Mimi-speak meant she had some moonshine from one of her cousins in LaGrange or Mason or one of those little country towns outside of Memphis that had supplied one–third of black folks in the city. I was as good as there.

***

I knew Claudette and Tee. I had seen them at Mimi’s over the years on trips home. They were friends from one of the many jobs Mimi went through as quickly as she went through men. They were her casino-going, beer-drinking buddies, women whose frustration seeped between the words of “Cheating in the Next Room” or anything Phyllis Hyman sang.

 “Here come Miss Celie.” Mimi drawled when I walked into the house, arms burdened with a box of hot chicken and cans of frozen drink mix. She started making Color Purple cracks after I locked my hair. Claudette and Tee laughed. A woman I never met snickered behind artificially long fingernails and dull gold rings, a co-worker of Mimi’s, no doubt. I really didn’t care; in a couple of years, they’d all be lined up at the beauty supply store trying to buy weave that looked like my dreads.

All of them wore hair nets and matching pink smocks; Claudette’s half-buttoned, Tee’s hung off her shoulders. The woman I didn’t know pulled on a long thin cigarette and blew smoke through her nose like a dragon-lady.

“I’m just messing with you,” Mimi said. “Don’t get all mad at me, girl. Set that shit down and come hit this.” She held the joint between two well-worn, brown fingers. 

I turned my loaded arms in her direction then walked to the kitchen to put the wings on the stove and the daiquiri mix on the counter to thaw. A slim, tall, dark-skinned woman leaned in my way. The hardness around her mouth betrayed lines that only disappointment brings. She regarded me with wide green eyes that had run out of innocence a long time ago. She held a cigarette in one hand with her free arm crossed in front of her body. Her pink smock was similar to the one that sagged around Mimi’s chair.

“I’m Vanessa Davis, Mimi’s friend who just moved back from Charlotte.” I put down the food and stuck out my hand. 

The woman ignored it and blew smoke at the ceiling. She cocked her head, curls from her weave bobbed to one side. She examined my hair from a safe distance like it was a science project gone bad.

“I’m Boonie.” She patted her ashes in the sink and recrossed her arms. “So you’re Mimi’s girl, Nessa.”

“That’s me.”

“What’s that shit all over your head?” she asked.

“It’s called hair.”

“I know that, but what the hell did you do to it?”

“They’re called locks, dreadlocks. Bob Marley wore them. Lauryn Hill, India.Aire.”

“Yeah but theirs looked good.”

“So will mine.”

“When?” Boonie flicked the cigarette into the sink and picked up a glass of beer that sat at her elbow.

“Never.” Mimi had walked into the kitchen and was taking a dusty blender from under the counter. She set it next to a Crown Royal bag that had a Jack Daniels bottle sticking out of it.

“She been growing them thangs for two years, and they’re dreadful but I don’t know about them locking. All they seem to do is grow.”

Boonie laughed and sipped beer from the kind of glass they use in restaurants that rather you order something besides water to drink. 

“Let me tell you what else she does.” Mimi never missed a chance to embarrass folks.  “Nessa sits on one of them rugs and meditates. Lighting candles, incense, listening to weird music. She even reads cards.”

“You mean that white folks chanting shit. Like that actress. What was her name?”  Boonie snapped her fingers like it would improve her memory. “Shirley Chisholm?”

“That’s Shirley McLane. Shirley Chisholm ran for president.” I walked to the other room; Claudette was holding the joint Mimi offered earlier.

“A sistah get a little book learning and she forget all about Jesus.” Boonie followed me. 

“It’s not just white folks.” I told her after I blew smoke to the other side of the room. “Hell, we black folks chant and carry on at church, raising up our hands, shouting and clapping. What’s the difference?”

“You tell me. Who knows better than you?” 

Any belief that wasn’t written in a book and delivered by a man in a robe or a suit was white folks shit to Mimi, Buddhism included. Boonie must have felt the same.

She took a drink from her beer and moved across the room. I passed the joint to Tee and picked up a new deck of cards from the coffee table. I shuffled through it looking for the red twos.

“What we playing spades, tonk or bid whiz?” I asked, trying to change the subject.

“You gonna read our cards,” Boonie said.

“Naw, she’s gonna get in there and fix them daiquiris.” Mimi jerked her head toward the kitchen.  “Nessa’s got a touch. She can hook them up just like Applebee’s.”

“Keep running your mouths and I’ll hook them up just like McDonald’s.”  I stalked into the kitchen.

Mimi was right; my daiquiris are legend. I had been my parents’ favorite bartender from the time I was ten until I left home. I started taking sips at twelve years old and noticed I didn’t get sad and loopy like my mother or loud and aggressive like my father. By the time I turned fourteen I was mixing my own and realizing I possessed the rare ability to drink alcohol without getting drunk. I’d just get a little quiet and mellow.

I set the blender in the sink, shook the half-frozen mix into it, and added some strawberries Mimi had crushed earlier. Then I took the bottle out of the bag and poured a third of the cloudy, oily liquid over the mix of red in the blender. I found a lime to squeeze on top to cut the taste.

***

“Mmmm.” Mimi waved her hand in the air like she just heard her favorite song.

“Didn’t I tell ya my girl Nessa could hook it up?” She elbowed Boonie so hard the flab on Mimi’s arm jiggled.

“Tastes a little strong to me.” Boonie held her cup from her face and pulled her mouth tight.

“Yeah, but it hits the spot.” Tee slurped at her drink again. She and Claudette were on the losing end of a game of rise and fly with Mimi and Boonie. Claudette stood first, jaws sunken, lips wrapped around her straw, sucking on her daiquiri. She and Tee moved toward the couch in unison, pink-draped shoulders touching, work shoes shuffling. I had next. I played opposite the Dragon Lady, who introduced herself as Diane.

“Oh, hell, we gonna make short work out of ya’ll.” Boonie turned her sharp jade gaze at me.

“Next,” she yelled at Claudette and Tee, who were too busy scraping the bottom of their plastic cups with their straws to notice her.  

“Your cut.”  Mimi offered the cards to Diane, who moved them in three neat piles; blood red fingernails over shiny new cards.       

Mimi dealt while Boonie got up and went into the kitchen and returned with a full cup of pink slush.

“I shoulda waited till we finished with ya’ll. But those greedy bitches woulda drunk it all up.” She nodded at the women on the couch. 

Claudette and Tee passed a new joint between them, feet propped on the pressboard coffee table, their heads resting on the back of Mimi’s leather touch couch.

I arranged my cards and waited; it was a decent hand, a couple of kings, a queen, one ace and three lower spades. I bid four and got five.

“Damn. They ran a ten on us.” Mimi stood, stretched and pulled her thin tee-shirt over her belly roll. 

“And we gots to get up.” Boonie’s face was as dark and hard as granite. She put both hands on the card table and pushed herself up like she weighed a great deal.

“Next.” I caught Boonie’s attention and smiled.

Claudette and Tee put the joint in the ashtray and walked toward the table.

“That was fast.” Claudette passed the ashtray to me. “Didn’t have time to finish this.” 

We made short work of them too, even though they stayed close in the second game, and then it was Mimi and Boonie’s turn.

“Not you again.” Boonie held a plate rimmed with ranch dressing, piled high with steamy hot wings and a fresh drink with its straw bobbing in the melting liquid. Mimi followed her with an identical plate, but her cup was only half full.

“We out of drink,” she said as she sat down. “There’s enough moonshine in there for another batch or two. And them wings is good, you better get some before they all gone.”

“Keep your hands off the cards.” I blew smoke at Mimi and slid the cards across the table to Diane. Another cigarette dangled from her mouth. 

“You wanna plate?” I stopped halfway to the kitchen and turned.

“No, thank you.” Red fingernails extracted the cigarette from darkened lips. “My mama’s got my kids and she works third shift. Win or lose, I’m outta here.”

I picked through the wings until I found some without too much sauce, then concentrated on the daiquiris. I squeezed in a little extra fruit this time, and this batch tasted better than the last. I got a bigger cup.

***

Mimi and Boonie won the first game, but Diane and I took the last two; the final game I dropped the high joker over Mimi’s low one to take the winning book. After Diane left, they sat at the table, licking their fingers, sipping their drinks and talking about which grocery stores had what on sale that week.

“I wanna play tonk,” Claudette said. “There’s no need playing spades unless we play to five hundred.” She looked at me as if I had ruined the good times.

“Whoa, I’m full of it.” Tee held her hands up like she had surrendered. “I can’t play no more. Them drinks sneak up on ya.”

“Hell, Tee, you always quit early,” Mimi said. “Nessa, you wanna play?”

“I’m not long for here, either.” I stifled a yawn with the back of my hand.

Boonie was quiet; her glassy eyes said everything.

“Boonie?  Boon-nay,” Mimi repeated until Boonie turned in her direction.

“H’uh?  What?” Boonie focused on Mimi.

“You kinda full, ain’t ya?” Mimi asked.

“Naw, just thinking.” Boonie turned away from us and stared into space.

“That bitch is drunk.” Mimi laughed. 

“And you got the nerve to talk about me,” Tee said. “I never get that full.”

“Neither do I,” Claudette added.

“Good, then ya’ll can help me clean up.” Mimi pointed at a hazy-looking Boonie. “Nessa, you got her messed up, you gotta take her and lay her down on my bed.”   

I lifted Boonie under one arm like she had a bum leg and helped her to the bedroom, something else I had been doing for one parent or the other since I was thirteen.

“Nes-sah.” I had just laid her down and was turning to leave.

“Yes, Boonie.”  Drunk people never let a person leave the room without one last word, and most times that word was better left unsaid.

“You ain’t so bad after all.”

I let out a long breath I didn’t know I held. 

“Naw, I mean it.” She rubbed a hand across her forehead. “I thought you would be snobbish and shit. Talking all proper, correcting folks.  But you ain’t. You for real.” 

“I’m from here. Grew up right down the street from Mimi.” Her home was at the end of the street where the houses got smaller and had more broken toys in the yard than grass.

“She told me, but you know how folks get.” She squeezed her eyes shut like they hurt. We didn’t say anything for a minute.

“Let me get you some water,” I said. “That’ll stop the hangover. Old college trick.”

“Did Mimi tell you I went to college, too?” she asked, soft as air. I moved toward her, sat down on the bed.

“No, she didn’t.” I felt bad that she hadn’t. Mimi probably talked about me like I was the second coming of Christ. 

“Yeah, for a couple of years, till I got pregnant.” She had pushed herself up on her elbows and squinted at the light.

“We were going to get married, but his family talked him out of it,” she said.  “He’s an engineer. He married an RN.”

“Motherfucker,” we said at the same time.

I rubbed her shoulder for a while then got up to get the water. In the living room, Mimi and Tee had flipped the card table on its back like a turtle and struggled to collapse its legs. They were tipsier than either of them realized. My daiquiri was perched at the edge of the entertainment center, the cards had slid on the floor next to the upturned table.  I swept them into a pile and stuck them in my back pocket. I pushed the legs down on the card table with no effort and helped Claudette stack the folding chairs in a corner next to a pile of video games and action figures. 

I rescued my melting daiquiri from the entertainment center before Mimi could fuss about me ruining her prized possession. I drained my slushy drink and rinsed out the cup to fill it with water. I shook off hot sauce from some celery sticks and passed through the living room again.

Mellowness descended over me like a soft cloud. Through the halo of thin smoke I saw how much Mimi looked like her Mom, the same tight concentration around her lips, the furrow of her brow that never seemed to relax from the weight of raising Mimi and her three siblings alone. I wondered if Tee, Claudette and Boonie looked like their mothers, too, had inherited their burdens, their struggles, as well as their faces, and if I had inherited my mother’s. 

I saw myself twenty years down the road, drink in hand, cigarette dangling from dry lips, staring at the television in a trance. My mom had a college degree.  All it got her was a house on the edge of the hood and a man who couldn’t hold his liquor any better than a job. I took a gulp of water. The moonshine daiquiri turned sour on my stomach.

I pushed the door open with my foot. Boonie was propped up on the pillows now, one arm draped across her forehead. I sat; the cards pushed out of my pocket, against my back. I laid them on the nightstand.  Boonie took the cup and I watched her drink like a parent watching a child take medicine. We listened to Mimi, loud, in the living room.

“I was the first person in my family to go to college.” I had to say something to block out Mimi’s voice. “My parents wanted to cash in my scholarship money so I could help pay the bills, which to them meant trips to the dog track.”

“Damn, you think they’d be proud,” Boonie said. “Least you got away from them. Moved outta town.” 

I thought about it before continuing. They were the reason I came back.

“I married somebody just like my daddy. Except when he got drunk, he’d chase women. Or at least he blamed it on drinking. His lawyer sent the divorce papers to my office while that asshole was out of town.”

I let that sink in; it still made a pit in the bottom of my stomach.

“CPAs suck too, you know.” 

She looked at me like she was thinking about it, then she laughed until she coughed, choking.

I patted her on the back until she stopped and gave her the water again. We sat quiet for a moment and listened to Mimi call Claudette and Tee “clumsy bitches” while they helped her clean up her house.

 “Ya’ll worse than Jay and L’il Man.  Least they don’t drink.”  Mimi’s voice cut into the room.

“Well, Jay and L’il Man ain’t here, so you best take what you can get,” came from either Claudette or Tee. I couldn’t tell which, except Mimi got quiet. 

“You remind me of my grandmother,” Boonie said after they settled down.  “Them dreads. She wore plaits instead; they look bout the same.”

We heard them move to the kitchen; Mimi fussed about how the daiquiris had turned to slush; and Claudette and Tee argued over the last of the hot wings.

“They called her a root doctor.” Boonie had a faraway look in her eyes, just like when she was sitting at the table, but not so sad. “Folks went to her when they couldn’t pay the real doctor. She could whip up root medicine like you fix drinks. You couldn’t beat her playing cards, like she knew what they said before you could flip ’em over. She could damn near tell your future by looking into a glass of pond water.”

Boonie took the cards off the nightstand and gave them to me. I spread them on the bed like a child playing in sand; then I laid them out in a Celtic cross and stared at them for a while. I told her she had been through some rough times and they would continue as long as she didn’t listen to herself. That she had more of her grandmother’s spirit in her than she realized and if she trusted herself she would find her way.

We heard the front screen door bang against the aluminum siding of the house and Mimi, Claudette and Tee clattered onto the porch. They were close enough to the bedroom window that they sounded like they were in the room with us.

“Bye, bitches. See ya’ll Monday,” Mimi hollered. 

“Not if we see you first,” came back; then laughter and the door let slam.

“This is your probable outcome.” I pointed to the last card, a red queen with the corners of her mouth curved upward. “None of this has to happen. It’s up to you. What you want. Understand?” I swept my hand over the spread. Boonie nodded and yawned. 

I put a finger on the card and closed my eyes. I opened them and was about to tell Boonie one final thing when Mimi slung through the door, ashtray in one hand, daiquiri in the other.

“Oh, hell, I forgot you two bitches were still here. Get a fucking room.” Mimi plopped down on the bed, the cross collapsed and slid toward her. She set down the drink and picked through the ashtray.

I looked at Mimi and then I looked at Boonie and said: “Your life would get better if you would only make new friends.”

 

 

FeLicia A. Elam’s work has appeared in Eugene Magazine, Soundings Review, VoiceCatcher 3: Women Writers of Portland, and other places. She has attended the Tin House workshop, VONA and Hurston/Wright Writers Week.  She is an MFA candidate at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts at Whidbey Island, where she was awarded the 2008-2010 Elizabeth George Foundation Scholarship and is a 2010 Hedgebrook fellow.   Ms. Elam lives in Portland, Oregon.