It was not that Ilana Randolph did not like people. She did. What she didn’t like was the way they looked at her, and at each other, either locked in magnetic gazes that were supposed to hold forever, or from an ocean’s width of distance. By seventeen, Ilana had made a study of watching pairs and groups of people—tear-stricken and wet-lashed lovers on soap operas, newlyweds on the steps of Harlem’s churches on spring Sunday afternoons, their faces drawn together as though by a gravity-defying string, their eyes straining to honor promises they knew their asses would not be able to cash. She had seen these looks pass between her mother and father, too, when her father was alive. She had seen love lunge fiercely out from one to another like a zoo tiger’s claw. Then, too, she had seen that love shocked, torn, bested by a bigger beast—another too-late night at the job, a disagreement about Ilana’s weight, the last of several unpaid bills—only to whimper and return to its source, a smile deflated to a shrivel of lips, a pair of once-wide eyes now closed. And this is what Ilana Randolph was thinking about when she left her mother’s house and stepped into a night as cold and wet as a glass of diet soda, pounding the blocks between her home and DeShawn Master’s, a garbage bag full of babies in tow.
That year, in the eleventh grade, Ilana made it her mission to skip surface exchanges and get under the world’s skin. She would walk the streets of the Hamilton Heights section of Harlem tagging abandoned buildings with the elaborately drawn names of made-up gangs, ducking cops and drug dealers and anyone who seemed like they might be part of a real crew. Then, on glorious days when she had the house to herself, she would sit on the front stoop eating chips or cereal and writing rhymes and pondering her present life’s central question: would she ever bother trying to make a family of her own.
Mrs. Randolph (whose first name nobody ever said—not even Ilana) did not acknowledge these changes in Ilana. When, after a quiet disagreement or a particularly fraught glance between Mrs. Randolph and her husband, Ilana would pummel the stairs up to her bedroom and bang rhythms on her radiator with a spray paint can so that only the clanging of metals and her daughter’s voice sputtering an indecipherable battery of rap lyrics let Mrs. Randolph know the girl was still alive, Mrs. Randolph would say nothing. She would simply hang her bodice up on the air like a freshly-pressed cardigan on a rack and ask her husband to be as thorough as possible in cleaning the collard greens.
The women of the Hamilton Grange Homeowners Association wondered—well, some of them did—why the woman who could celebrate the wind blowing through her favorite tree and invite the whole of Hamilton Heights to her garden to enjoy it could not part her lips in favor of her own girl. For this reason and others, Mrs. Randolph was a neighborhood mystery. She was a thick, sturdy woman with a billowy mass of graying hair, which she kept unpermed and pulled back into a great bush that the Grange Women all secretly envied, imagining the length and fullness it might boast if she ever let it out. She worked as a nurse practitioner at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, and was also on faculty at the School of Nursing, which always made the Grange Women chuckle, as no one could imagine her breathing warmth over the incapable, much less teaching young, frenzied nursing students to do as much. Mrs. Randolph had always been as cool and sharp as a shard of hail, and in the months since George keeled over on the closed-in deck behind the brownstone while Mrs. Randolph pruned the pumpkin leaf centerpieces in the next room in preparation for her annual Labor Day Lambchop Luncheon, Mrs. Randolph had become even more distant. After the funeral, Mrs. Randolph had floated further and further, missing most of the Grange meetings and making herself available only by formal invitation to one of the affairs she held in her small backyard garden.
Mrs. Randolph’s affairs were always held in the garden, with crisp white tablecloths and ornate centerpieces featuring fresh azaleas in the spring and summer, and dried fruit spreads in the fall. In the winter, she rented heat lamps and had the garden’s small deck professionally enclosed with temporary tarps so that her guests could sit in perfect warmth amid the gray-tinged snow. All of the Grange Women wondered why they weren’t allowed to spend time inside the Randolph home, why they were always ushered quickly through the garden floor parlor, past the kitchen, and into the yard.
As Mrs. Randolph grew increasingly withdrawn, Ilana grew quieter and stranger until no one saw much of the girl, with the exception of Ann Master, whose son, DeShawn, had been close with Ilana not long ago. Ann, a slim lawyer with speckled eggshell skin, and a nose like a raspberry, had always greeted the thought of Ilana with a raised eyebrow, even before Ilana crept down Sugar Hill with her trash bag full of babies behind her. As far as Ann was concerned, the girl had always been as quiet as her mother was mean, and the two seemed to dive miles deeper into their personality flaws when the man of the house passed on. It bothered Ann, as it had bothered all of the Grange Women, to see Ilana grow weird, marching down the streets of Harlem with pink and blue and purple braids swinging wildly from her head like loose electric wires, mouthing the words to some hip-hop song without a care as to who was watching.
Ann had put an end to DeShawn’s dealings with Ilana around Christmas time, as soon as traces of the girl started to show up mysteriously in places where Ilana herself could not have been. It began with a few strands of synthetic blue extension hair in the bottom drawer of Ann’s filing cabinet at work. Then a handful of green press-on nails appeared in her grocery bag, lodged between the pine nuts and the Stahmanns candied pecans. By the time a whole fuchsia braid turned up on the seat beside her on the subway, its end wrapped around the nozzle of a spray paint can, Ann forbade DeShawn from saying so much as ‘yo’ to the girl. She put her foot down, telling him that he was risking his allowance, his college fund, and his future. And, as far as she was concerned, that had been that.
Though the rest of the Grange Women had not had much experience with Ilana or her mother that year, it didn’t take more than two eyes and a scrap of sense to know that something was wrong. But that was not the sort of thing you would speak on, at least not to a woman’s face. So, in January, after Mrs. Randolph missed her fourth consecutive Grange meeting with the excuse that she was planning her annual MLK Day Mountaintop Supper, the Grange Women resolved to caucus on the matter over at Copeland’s Sunday Brunch.
“Poor girl,” Mary Pitts said, pointing her lips and sloshing the butter around in her grits. “No wonder she acts so strange. Mother can’t speak a good word on her to save her life.”
“Since the father passed, seem like the girl don’t have nobody,” Celia Wallstone shook her head, raking the stiff ends of her wig over her shoulders. “Course George didn’t hardly say nothing when he was around. Guess that woman scared him so. Nice man, though.” She took a sip of her coffee, her eyebrows raised behind the steam.
“Mmm. It’s a shame,” said Sarah Prince, leaning into the table. The Grange Women mmm-ed their agreement.
“That house is strange, for sure.” Ann Master said quietly, having finished her salmon and home fries. She was normally silent during these sessions, largely for fear she might be charged with hypocrisy. DeShawn often made news on the whisper mill for small things like tagging church stairs with graffiti or stringing his FILA sneakers up on telephone poles. But DeShawn was ultimately harmless, and much better than most of the lower-Harlem kids. Still, for a teenage boy, he hadn’t given Ann much trouble, and, in fact, she’d recently begun to miss the boisterousness he’d shown growing up, the bland, mealy smell of baby formula and the feel of milk splashed for temperature testing against her wrist.
But all this was just fantasy for Ann. As the youngest of the Grange Women, she was 44. In the past few years she had witnessed her hips beginning to bulge toward her knees, her breasts caving in slightly and sliding down her stomach like two globs of paint on a wall. Moreover, DeShawn’s father was a useless man who seemed to think sending a video game or a pack of subway tokens every few months constituted supporting a child. And there were no other men in sight. All she could do, she had decided, was mother the child she had, protect him from crack, the police, and bad women, and hope he would find a decent girl to one day give him the family she craved. A girl very different from Ilana.
“It’s no wonder that girl turned out the way she did,” Ann said finally, dabbing her napkin at the corners of her mouth.
“What you mean, Ann?” Joyce asked haughtily.
“You mean she’s not simple?” Marietta Mann ventured, pushing a cube of melon onto her fork.
“No,” said Celia Wallstone. “She means the girl don’t talk, right Ann?”
“Well,” Ann said, brushing crumbs from her lap. “I don’t like to tell tales, but you know she isn’t a woman yet.”
“How’s that?” Wilma Fridelle and Sarah Prince asked in unison.
“I mean,” Ann said, her face going hard with impatience. “She’s going on seventeen and hasn’t had her… her visitor yet. She told DeShawn she didn’t plan to either. Said it just like that: ‘I don’t plan to.’”
Mary Pitts sucked her teeth and chuckled. “Keep talkin,’ Ann.”
Ann shrugged. “I’m just telling you, is all,” she said, folding her napkin and placing it on the table. “Believe it or don’t.”
Before the bag of doll babies, it did not matter whether Ilana heard these conversations or not. That the grange women waited until she and her mother were out of earshot was nothing more than a useless courtesy, like a prison chef’s effort to add extra salt and to an innocent’s final meal. She knew the conversations, felt them dripping from the women’s scowls. Late at night, she would lay on her bed thinking about what the women said—what they must have been saying, about her. Thinking about how they disliked her, she could conjure up a sharp dislike of them. She would think about what tragedy of life must have made them who they’d become—what error kept Joyce Turner’s lips running and eyes darting as though calamity would come if she let her mind be still? What indiscretion made Marietta Mann so quiet she seemed to be shocked by the sound of her own breath? These women had been worn down, it seemed, by the quest to fall in line with the domestic parade—find a good man, find a good job, keep both, and have good children that would rinse, lather, repeat. But the cost of this process, the lint stuck in the trap, seemed always to be the women themselves, their own imagination, their joy, the brightness of their smiles that had to be cut in order to keep things rumbling forward. And so this was why they hated her, Ilana felt. She had decided to love life selfishly, and never give it to anyone. She would create no family, no children, nothing but herself. So Ilana Randolph spun herself a new cycle: these women disliked her for being this way, and, until the night of the babies, she let their disdain confirm her decision.
“A Magic of Bags” first appeared in From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth (Tiny Satchel Press, 2010). Read the full story in Mecca’s short story collection, Blue Talk and Love, forthcoming from Flipped-Eye/ Lubin & Kleyner press in 2012.