“Can we move across the road?”
Brenda scowled at the newly constructed lofts across the street and closed the curtains.
“No, child. We can’t.”
She made her way across the cramped bedroom and took a seat at the foot of the twin-sized bed being shared by her two daughters. She sat quietly, trying her best not to disturb the sleeping sister
“Why not, Mama?”
“We ain’t got that kinda money.”
“What kinda money we got?”
Brenda twirled her right hand above her head like a ceiling fan–one of the many amenities that were hard to find on their side of the asphalt. Her eyes remained on her daughters’ juice-stained comforter. She didn’t need to see the constellations of mold spores spanning the roof. She didn’t need to look at the cracks in the walls where pests fled with food crumbs held over their heads. She didn’t need to watch the AC unit convulse erratically in the window to keep the room below 90 degrees. She was painfully aware of their living conditions.
“Why don’t we got that kind of money?”
“That’s a matter of opinion.”
“An opinion is something people say is true, even though they ain’t got no way of proving it.”
“What’s your opinnin?”
“It don’t matter.”
“Because I ain’t got that kinda money.”
“The people across the street.”
“What’s their opinnin?”
Brenda laughed, looking down at her knuckles that were swollen from decades of clenching cleaning supplies.
“I guess that’s a matter of opinion, too.”
“It depends on what you think is important.”
“What do they think is important?”
“The people that think you lazy.”
“You was lazy in school?”
“That’s a matter of opinion.”
“Everything’s a matter of opinnin to you, Mama!”
Brenda and her daughter braced themselves as the sleeping sibling started to squirm. After a few furrows of her brow and nose, the toddler squeezed her raggedy plush turtle and settled back to sleep.
“You betta watch your tone.”
“Sorry, Mama. So why do people think you was lazy in school?”
“Because I didn’t do too good on my report cards.”
“Did your mama get mad at you like you do at me?”
“I didn’t have no mama growing up.”
“You didn’t have no mama!”
The daughter quickly grabbed her mouth to stop the outburst from spilling out, but it was too late. Her younger sister yawned, stretching her slender frame as if her arms and legs were being pulled in opposite directions by invisible forces.
Her ribs pressed against the caramel-mocha skin of her unclothed torso. Her elbows disrupted the smooth lines of her arms like knots in a length of rope. The thighs extending from her reusable diaper were the same width as her underdeveloped calves. And her sugar-rotted teeth protruding crookedly from her gums like a weathered picket fence. Her eyes opened as her lips closed.
“Come here, child.”
Brenda’s youngest daughter crawled into her mother’s outstretched arms and pressed herself against the right side of her body. Her tiny figure left plenty of space for her older sister.
Brenda beckoned her talkative child with her free arm. She bounded across the bed to Brenda’s left thigh in a single leap. The three of them sat bunched together at the foot of the narrow mattress.
“No, child, I didn’t have no mama.”
“Did you have a daddy?”
“Nope. I didn’t have no daddy either.”
“Where were they?”
“Jail? A grave? I don’t know? I just know they wasn’t there. I was raised in a foster home.”
“Did you have any sisters or brothers?”
“TOO many! They weren’t my real brothers and sisters, but we still had to share beds and food and all the things you two fight over. There must’ve been a hundred of us.”
“Did they keep you safe?”
“Safe? I haven’t felt safe my whole life.”
“Do you feel safe now?”
“Then that’s all that matters.”
“Do the people across the street feel safe?”
“When will they?”
“When our side of the street looks like theirs.”
“Can we still live here then?”
“Because we ain’t like them.”
“What are they like?”
Brenda looked up from the sleeping toddler leaning against the right side of her body and stared at the floral-pattern curtains separating her eyes from the other side of the road.
“Yes, child, roses. They’re soft and delicate and pretty to look at. They need a lot of food and water and a special place to live. They need lots of love and attention.
“Well if they’re roses, what are we?”
“We’re more like those.”
Brenda pointed to the tripling of succulents sitting on the girls’ nightstand, their durable petals illuminated by the leftover moonlight seeping in from behind the curtains.
“Yes, child, cactuses.”
“Because we’re tougher than roses. We survive on a lot less than they do. Most people don’t pay us no mind, but we stay alive.”
“But I don’t want to be a cactus, Mama.”
“Because everybody likes roses more than cactuses.”
“Well, child, that’s not up to you. You’re either born a cactus or a rose, and you and your sister, you’re a couple of cactuses.”
The daughter pressed her face against Brenda’s chest. Brenda could feel her shirt moisten with tears.
“Quit your cryin, girl.”
Brenda gently slapped her daughter in the back of the head as if she were hitting an emergency-release button. Brenda’s daughter peeled her dampened eyes from her mother’s shirt.
“Let me finish. You and your sister were born cactuses and you will always be cactuses deep down in your souls, but if you make smarter decisions than your mama, you’ll be the strongest, fiercest, most beautiful flower of all.”
“A cactus rose.”
“Do they live across the road?”
“Child, there ain’t nowhere a cactus rose can’t grow.”