A tall, shapely woman walked up the three flights of outdoor stairs and turned right, approaching the apartment she was looking for. She was reasonably well dressed and wore a matching set of 12-carat earrings, necklace, and bracelet. She made three sharp, short knocks on the door.
Another woman opened the door. She was a few years older than the one outside. She was not well dressed, she was not wearing jewelry, and her figure was settling.
“I’m Yolanda,” the younger woman said. “Mrs. Cates, I want you to let Horace go so he and I can be together.”
Mrs. Cates crossed her arms. “Oh, do you? Well, I want you to take your gold-digging, home-wrecking ass the hell out of our lives. You got no business with my man.”
Yolanda huffed. “He’s hardly your man. He’s been with me three nights this past week alone. I want him in my life.”
“I don’t give a damn what you want. Horace is married to me, whether either of us likes it or not. And he’s got responsibilities right here.”
“The only responsibility he has is to make me happy. And that’s what he wants to spend his time doing.”
As the argument began to heat up, a small child appeared next to her mother.
“Mama,” she said softly, “I want a drink.”
“Not now, child,” Mrs. Cates said, not looking down. She resumed berating Yolanda.
The little girl waited a moment and then tried again. She patted her mother’s leg.
“Mama, I want a drink.”
“Hush, Jayana.” And the argument continued.
Jayana walked away, unhappy and thirsty. She sat in the middle of the floor where she had been coloring with the stubs of crayons her two older sisters had first been given. The room was living room and kitchen and bedroom for the three girls. There was one other bedroom and a small bathroom to complete the apartment.
She listened to the women yell without understanding. She knew her father was involved somehow but couldn’t make the connections. Her brain was concerned first and foremost with water.
Jayana stood up and walked over to the kitchen sink. The edge was three inches higher than the top of her head. She crawled under the table and pushed the nearest chair over to the sink. She climbed up on the chair and discovered that its back was barring her from getting to the faucet. She crawled back down and turned the chair a quarter turn. When she got back on it, she had access.
Of a sort.
The handles to make the water flow were far away, on the other side of the basin. Jayana reached as far as she could, but she couldn’t touch the cold water handle. She looked through the back of the chair at her mother and the stranger.
“I don’t know what he sees in you.”
“I know what he sees in you, and that’s why he comes around to see me.”
Jayana had learned in her three years that once adults got to yelling at each other, children were ignored. There would be no use asking her mother for help yet.
She surveyed the sink again. Her cup was sitting in the basin, so that was convenient. She just had to reach the handle for the water.
She got back on the floor and looked around for something in the sparsely furnished apartment to give her some extra reach. Most of the truly useful pieces were heavy enough Jayana couldn’t move them. Then she saw just the thing.
The ball was nearly as tall as she was. It was made of stiff, brightly colored plastic. It, too, had belonged first to her sisters, but she played with it as much as they did. She rolled it to the kitchen side of the room and set it on the chair.
Jayana got on the chair again and worked to mount the ball. With each new attempt, the ball moved a little, frustrating her efforts. She finally put one knee on the ball and held it in place against the sink. Then she pushed off with her other foot. She reached out and grabbed the faucet; she waited in this precarious position for a moment until she was satisfied with it. She freed one hand and reached down for her little pink cup. Then Jayana leaned toward the cold water handle.
In the doorway, Yolanda pushed the door open a little wider so she could jockey for better position. She moved to her right a bit and a half step closer to Mrs. Cates.
“And if you can’t see that you’re smothering him then –” Movement caught her eye and she glanced into the apartment. “No!” she shrieked.
Yolanda pushed past Mrs. Cates and rushed toward Jayana as the big ball shot out from underneath the girl. The merest instant before Jayana’s head would have collided with the porcelain sink, Yolanda snatched her up and swung her away.
“Baby girl, what are you doing?” Yolanda said to the child she held tightly. “You almost got your head cracked open.”
“I wanted a drink.” And Yolanda could see the pink cup still in the girl’s grasp.
Yolanda also realized that Mrs. Cates was standing right there and set Jayana on the floor. The girl’s mother took the cup and filled it with water.
“Go back over there now and color some more.”
Jayana took her water and walked under the table to her coloring book.
The fight had gone out of both adults, and they just looked at each other.
“Thank you,” Mrs. Cates said quietly.
“You’ve got to watch her more…” Yolanda began, then she sighed. “That wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been here.” She watched Jayana pick up a fragment of a red crayon and make bold marks on the book. Then Yolanda looked more closely at the apartment; she saw the cracked walls, the missing tiles here and there, the rabbit ears on the old TV, and a long cardboard box with bedding in it that she correctly surmised Jayana used nightly.
“This is the style he keeps you and that precious baby in?”
“And two other girls just a little older.”
Yolanda’s shoulders slumped and she stared at the floor for a bit. “I’m a fool.” She started toward the open door. “I’m just a damn fool.” She stopped and looked back at Mrs. Cates. “Is this jewelry yours?”
Mrs. Cates shook her head.
Yolanda thought a moment. “It’s not mine, either. He should have bought food for you and your girls.” She began stripping off the jewelry, and she put it on the table. “Sell it. Get whatever you can. Don’t tell him, though. Let him think I’m a bitch and kept it.” A little of the old fire returned to her eyes. “And tell him I came around to dump him. If I see him, he’ll get my purse upside his head.”
She walked to the door and went out. She turned around.
“I’m sorry,” she told the not-much-older woman. “I’m truly sorry.”
Mrs. Cates nodded. “Good luck.”
“You, too.” And she headed for the stairs.
Mrs. Cates closed the door. She put the jewelry in her pocket and sat down by her youngest daughter.
“Never, ever, let me catch you getting up on the sink like that again.”
“I wanted some water.”
“Girl, I haven’t let you die of thirst yet. Learn some patience. You’ll really need it when you’re older.”