By Sean C. Wright-Neeley
“Your blood pressure is very low. I can tell you aren’t menstruating.”
Ambrosia didn’t answer, closed her eyes, and pushed her face into the hospital bed.
Ambrosia’s manager, Holly, gave her a ride home. Holly looked like Steve Buscemi in a page boy wig, and was a good fifteen pounds overweight. Her desk was a compost heap, and Holly returned from lunch with a stain on her shirt, ninety-percent of the time. Ambrosia felt grimy whenever she left Holly’s office, always hurried to the ladies’ room to scour her hands.
“Ambi, you need help,” Holly said.
“I’m just tired.”
“This is the second time in three months that you’ve fainted at work.”
“I’ll get a good night’s rest.”
Her manager stopped at a red light, swallowed, and fingered the steering wheel.
“Ambrosia, we’ve decided you are not to come back to work until you are healthy.”
“I’m your best worker.”
“I know, but you aren’t much good to me in this condition. I’ll give you until the end of this week to get help. You’ll be on paid leave.” It was Monday afternoon.
“If you don’t get help. . .”
Holly didn’t have to finish for Ambrosia to know what was coming: her manager wanted her to get fat. This jackal-faced bitch was jealous, and she didn’t want Ambrosia around if she wasn’t as ugly as she.
Ambrosia loved getting into a rhythm so that her legs rolled like wheels. Six miles today. Normally, it was five, but the hospital made her drink apple juice (120 calories) before they released her. Ambrosia was Coffee, Foxy Brown, chasing the scum. “Freeze, sugar! You’re under arrest!” she sometimes whispered to herself as she jogged. Her ropy limbs pumped as efficiently as cylinders. Ambrosia rounded a corner on the sidewalk, then another. She nearly toppled two Girl Scouts, clutching their cookie order forms.
She had been in Girl Scouts. The mirth was the number pi, looping and stretching into forever: selling cookies, going on hayrides and campouts, earning badges. Ambrosia even adored the dorky uniform.
The brown girl had an easy smile, twinkling eyes, and a quirky sense of humor. Her classmates always wanted to sit by her on the bus for a field trip, always flocked to the lunch table of her choice. The best part was Faye, a Melissa Sue Anderson lookalike, and her best friend. The duo engaged in tea parties and sleepovers and dressing Barbie. Their chuckles were cryptic and merry as they took turns kissing the Backstreet Boys poster in Faye’s bedroom.
Adorable, adults said. What a pretty little girl. A pretty, happy girl. Ambrosia had even landed a role as an extra in a Dairy Queen commercial.
Someone turned off the music, ripped the party dress off Ambrosia’s back when she was eleven. Her father lost his job. Faye moved far away. The metamorphosis was the worst. Ambrosia’s bosom swelled like a bantam rooster’s; the derriere and thighs like a manatee’s. Acne turned her face into peanut brittle.
Ambrosia was munching on a cheese Danish while walking to school one winter morning when she crossed paths with Kelvin Moley. He was one of ugly’s best reps with a cadaverous complexion and countless freckles, an albino chocolate chip cookie. Kelvin had beady eyes and a mouth full of metal. But his insult still felt like a kick to the shin.
“Hey, Bertha,” he said, gazing at Ambrosia’s pudge and pimples, “is that pastry watermelon-flavored?” But Tim Miglione’s comment last week pricked her heart worse. Because Tim was a Mediterranean beauty: olive complexion and hair that was octopus ink-dark. His eyes were the best part, cerulean as water in a painting. He had called Ambrosia “moose.”
Ambrosia fought the good fight. She caked on Clearasil. When the results were marginal, Oxy. Ambrosia cut bangs, experimented with eyeliner. But the affliction was insistent and persistent, and so was its darkness. So she hid in her room; out of the path of her mother’s screeching arrows at her father to get off his lazy, black ass and find another job. Ambrosia pitied him, but wished he’d grown a backbone. He only winced when her mother grilled him for bringing home the wrong brand of canned corn. He was silent when she threw a tantrum at the dinner table because he had bounced a check. Ambrosia simultaneously felt minty cool and cinnamon hot about her father leaving. Minty because she understood: a fat, mean wife was hell personified. Cinnamon because he had left her, too.
“Sorry,” one of the Girl Scouts said, even though it was Ambrosia’s fault, “Wanna buy some cookies?” She thrust her order form forward. Her cohort, scowled. “She may want to buy from me.”
“I’ll buy one box from you both,” Ambrosia interjected, even though the thought of eating cookies thumped her heart like a disco.
They smiled as they each handed her pens and order forms.
Ambrosia stared at the Girl Scouts staring up at her. She so wanted to hug them, the poor things. They had no concept of the trouble that awaited them in about three years: boys, boobs, and monthly blood.
Ambrosia finished her run and went home to dinner: three saltine crackers, five black olives, and a glass of strawberry Crystal Light.
Tuesday morning. 7:03 AM
Neonatal sunlight snaked through the blinds and into Ambrosia’s bedroom. The room was “light” anyway with the bed clothes and throw pillows suggesting nothing darker than beige. She kept only a bed, night table, lamp and clock in the bedroom, and two pieces of black art on the walls. Ambrosia had a rug once, but hated how it mussed every time she trod on it. Ambrosia lay in bed, and ran a finger over her protruding collar bones and ribs. Eight times. Because eight was her favorite age.
After her morning aerobics, Ambrosia stood in front of the closed fridge, eating breakfast — one Fig Newton, consumed in no less than twenty bites. There was no magnet clutter on the fridge, only a picture of her at her most grotesque. The photo stopped Ambrosia cold every time she got the urge to tear open the fridge and raid its guts with ravenous intensity.
“Let me take your picture before you go, Ambi.”
“Come on now. It won’t take but a minute.”
Ambrosia looked like a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in her ruffled, fuchsia dress; bloated and colorful. All that was missing was the tether, she thought. Her relaxed hair was teased and sprayed into a big, black halo. It was times like these that Ambrosia really missed her father. Maybe he would tell her how pretty she looked, even though it was a lie.
Her mother snapped the picture, and the Polaroid slowly crapped out the image.
The dance was a microcosm of school, boys tethered to girls with meager waists and sinewy, coltish limbs. Boys who had been dancing with girls during the fast song snatched them close and swayed.
No one grabbed Ambrosia.
She sat with the other discarded girls. Hoped. Ambrosia went to the girls’ restroom, blotted her face with paper towels, and fluffed her hair. She came back, sat, and waited some more with her hands interlaced in her lap while fantasizing about one night in bed with Prince until the dance was over.
Ambrosia bleated and whimpered like only a thirteen-year-old girl can the moment she walked in the door.
“No one asked me, Mama. No one!”
“It’s not the end of the world. There’ll be other dances,” she snorted.
“It was embarrassing,” Ambrosia persisted.
Her mother’s face darkened.
Wham! Bam!Her mother clocked Ambrosia two hard and stiff punches to her shoulder.
“You don’t appreciate anything! I get you a nice dress and shoes, get your hair done, and all you can do is whine. You’re just as simple as your father!”
Ambrosia ran to her room and lay down on her bed crying; a lumpy, hot-pink mess with a throbbing shoulder.
It was easy to ignore the ugly concert of her stomach growling at work. Phones rang, meetings were called, and clients screamed like wet, hungry babies about billing problems. The hours struggled to pass at home. Ambrosia watched TV, weighed herself (110; good, but not her best), and read until she felt like her apartment was crushing her windpipe and lungs. Ambrosia put on her jacket and went for a walk.
She was three blocks from her apartment, and was actually enjoying the cool air swooping down from the cyan ceiling. It was like Ambrosia was the only person on earth; children were in school and nearly everyone else was at work. Everyone but an older man, who was approaching her on the sidewalk. . .
The man had called to Ambrosia more than once as she trekked home from school that day, walked towards her purposefully.
“Excuse me! Excuse me, young lady. Can you tell me how to get to Berrymount Street?”
She immediately heard the little voice tell her not to let him get too close. The man was stout and barrel-chested, like a toddler. He had brushed his hair forward to cover his balding. He was smiling, but the smile couldn’t hide a leer.
Ambrosia gave him directions, despite her uneasiness.
“Thank you,” the man said, unzipped his fly, and revealed his entire package — penis and scrotum — in one quick and smooth motion. Ambrosia’s eyes bulged like a Tex Avery cartoon. The random thought in her flickering horror was, “He must not be wearing underwear.”
Ambrosia ran. The nasty man’s laughter followed her for about one-hundred feet. She kept running and looking back until she couldn’t see or hear him anymore. Ambrosia discovered that she had dropped her eighth-grade science book when she got home. But she was too scared to go back and look for it. Her mother would be cross.
“I asked,” the man said, “if you had the time, miss.”
“No,” Ambrosia said, looking distraught, “I’m not wearing a watch.”
The old man watched her scurry away, perplexity pulling his bushy, gray eyebrows into arches.
She got the mail upon return from her walk. Ambrosia always stood over the trash can when she studied her mail. She discarded anything that wasn’t a bill–efficiently threw away coupons, charity solicitations, catalogs until she saw the canary yellow envelope. Ambrosia opened it and pulled out the card. Happy Birthday, My Dear Ambi! Love Mama.
Ambrosia tore the card into confetti and flushed the pieces down the toilet.
“Eat your pork chops, Ambi.”
“Not hungry, Mama.”
“I went through all this trouble to make a birthday dinner, and I’ll be damned if you waste it.”
“Mama, I told you I wasn’t hungry when you were making it–”
Ambrosia looked down at the tepid hunk of swine, lying on a rice raft floating in a gravy reservoir. The rice looked like maggots and the gravy looked like glue.
“No,” she said and stood.
Her mother caught her arm before she could leave the table and pinched it hard.
Ambrosia screeched like a rhesus monkey at the pain, then growled like a wolf as she picked up her plate and dumped it on her mother’s head.
“Don’t ever touch me again!”
Her mother gasped loudly and bucked her eyes as pieces of meat and rice rolled down her face like mucky rain in the gravy. Her glare was fiery with weary overtones. Ambrosia glared back, flexing. She was getting lithe and strong, having lost nearly fifteen pounds. Ambrosia had her father’s height, too, had sprouted up to five-feet-nine. She looked and looked at this woman and wondered how she could have come from her. This puffy, mahogany tyrant with food congealing on her head and shoulders. Her mother spoke at last, her voice sounding as brittle as termite-infested wood.
“I thought sending you to a white school would give you a better education. All it’s done is make you a fool.”
Ambrosia scowled and turned to the chocolate cake on the counter whose top was impaled with sixteen candles. She picked it up, raised it over her head, and dashed it to the floor.
Thursday morning was overcast.
Ambrosia got into her fluid jogging rhythm. She was in her third mile when her side cramped so that it felt like she’d been shot. Ambrosia slowed her pace, but it wouldn’t let up. She was humbled to trotting, then walking, then limping. Her head felt like it was full of helium – again – and her breath became short. Ambrosia stopped on the steps of a modest Baptist church, and sat with her head between her knees. It seemed like she had been on the church’s steps forever when a warm hand touched her nape.
Ambrosia slowly looked up to see everyone’s sweet, black grandmother: seventyish with salt and pepper hair and a complexion like tea cakes, standing over her. Her hazel eyes were tell-tale of a slave master’s foray into her ancestors’ cabin, centuries ago. The old woman wore a warm up suit with confidence, along with her body’s ample padding. The fat wasn’t repulsive though; it made a good lap to crawl into and listen to a story. Ambrosia just knew the woman had butterscotch discs in her purse to share, and sang Mahalia Jackson songs as she baked notoriously delicious fruit cobblers. The last time Ambrosia ate apple cobbler was in a dream five years ago, wearing a royal-purple dress.
“I was running, and got tired,” Ambrosia replied.
The old woman looked around, then back at Ambrosia’s sharp face and twiggy limbs in her running tights.
“It’s cold out here, Baby.”
Before Ambrosia could protest, the woman was helping her up and leading her inside the church. The air was warm and still inside. The carpet was red shag; the pews pale oak. Images of Jesus and angels and doves floated in stained glass; he was caramel-skinned, the angels ginger and chocolate.
The woman led her to the church’s kitchen in back.
“Cooking for our revival on Sunday. Keep me company while you rest. What’s your name?”
“Ambrosia,” she squeaked.
Ambrosia listened — her mind thick and muddy as gumbo — to the old woman make small talk. Then she heard the other voice. Ambrosia. Her head cleared, she looked around the kitchen. The old lady gabbed and gabbed with her back to Ambrosia, beating corn bread batter with a wooden spoon, not seeming to hear. Ambrosia. The voice got louder and appeared to be coming from the church’s front; it wasn’t masculine or feminine, wasn’t human or mechanical.
Ambrosia slowly waded to the kitchen doorway, and gazed out. She caught full sight of black Jesus and the angels’ sweet faces in the stained glass before the colors broke, swirled, and zoomed towards her like a kaleidoscope. Ambrosia’s immersion into the colorful, racing soup felt like a bubble bath to the soul. It was warm; smelled like wildflowers in the apex of spring.
Images overlaid the colors. Ambrosia saw herself as an infant with a sack-of-potatoes body and toothless smile. Then at five, hair wild in the backyard’s sun, staring bright-eyed and holding ever-so-still for a monarch butterfly that had landed on her forearm. There she was at eight, wearing head-to-toe green in her Girl Scout uniform, skipping to school with herlunchbox; her longs braids sticking out from under her beanie, haphazardly. Then now at last – a spindly wand in the church’s kitchen doorway, looking like all her femininity and purpose had been siphoned out with a sadistic straw.
Just as quickly as it had appeared, the vortex of truth, love, and peace was gone. Ambrosia was once again staring transfixed at black Jesus and the angels in the stained glass. The message was serene but firm: a meal of seven M&Ms and a glass of water and the like had given Ambrosia absolutely nothing in all her twenty-four years. There was nothing in whittling down to nothing.
Ambrosia wept. She turned back to the old woman in the kitchen; tears coursing down her drawn face. The lady faced her; didn’t bat an eye. Instead, she gestured to a plate on the table. It held a sandwich, cut in four perfect, loving squares and some fruit salad, the fruit as colorful and bright as polished jewels.
For more flash fiction by Sean C. Wright-Neeley, click here.
I’m pleased to announce the release of my 8th book, Skoll’s Diary.
Africans and African Americans left Earth in 1900, and went to another planet in The Milky Way to escape mistreatment…
It’s now the year 3005 on that terraformed planet. We get a peek into the life of a bright and sensitive teenaged boy, Skoll, through his journal. He loves his world, but is curious about life on Earth. Then suddenly, an epic event casts him in the middle of a difficult decision. The fate of the planet’s community is in his hands.
Get the book here. I’d appreciate your leaving a review if you read it. Thanks in advance!