And then tomorrow, she will come to this side of the glass, where this good work that will make her hold her head up with dignity, where she will be proud to send me to school for free, and where we will build a good, brand-new life. Une belle vie, as she always promises, hoping that here she would be free to take her sister’s hand and touch the moon.
The living room of this house, my new home, is a sea of beige leather. The furniture crowds the small space as if every inch of it is meant for sitting. I’ve seen bigger salons in the mansions atop the hills of Petionville, even fancier furniture and wider flat-screen TVs. But none of that belonged to me and my mother; none of the owners were family. Here, I can sit on the leather couches for as long as I want and watch all the movies in the world as if I’m in the cinema.
Ma named us Primadonna and Princess ‘cause she thought being born in America to a father with a good-paying job at a car factory and a house and a bright future meant that we would be royalty. But when our father got killed, that’s when shit fell apart.
This is your home now, Fabiola. This is Phillip’s house—the house he bought with the last bit of money he had from Haiti. He had dreams, you know. That’s why when he saw this house for sale, on the corner of American Street and Joy Road, he insisted on buying it with the cash from his ransacked and burned-to-the-ground car dealership in Port-au-Prince. He thought he was buying American Joy.
She stares at the magic things for a while without touching them before she asks, “Does it work?”
“Well,” I say. “Has anyone ever tried to kill you?” I have to speak loudly over the music.
Pri turns around and closes the bedroom door, muting the music a bit.
“Kill me? Ain’t nobody rolling up in this house to kill anyone.”
“I know. We made it so. Me and my mother. Every day we asked the lwas to protect our family in Detroit and their house,” I say, adjusting my bra.
I see you clearer now because I light my candle and pour the libation, rattle the asson, and ring the bell to call all my guides, the lwas. You’ve told me that they are here for me. All I have to do is call on them so they can help me. I believe you, Manman. Even without you being here to hold ceremonies with drummers and singers and a village of followers, I will practice all that you’ve taught me.
“Leg. Bad,” I say loud and clear, because I now see him for who he is—the old man at the crossroads with his hat and cane and riddles come to open doors for me. He is the lwa who guards the gates to everything good—to everything bad, too. “Bad. Leg. Legba. Papa Legba.”
I look all around the restaurant. “But this is your job,” I say.
She inhales and looks around, too. “Yes, it is. But our work is not without the help of good American citizens like yourself. You are an American citizen, right?”
“But I ain’t no kingpin, know what I’m saying? So it’s just favors here and there. Shit you do for fam.”
A cold chill travels up my spine. Shit you do for fam. The way he says it, it’s like he would do anything for his family, like for love and respect. I say it out loud. “Shit you do for fam.” I turn to him.
“Shit you do for fam,” he repeats.
“On American Street, I will live with my aunt Jo and my cousins, and go to school, and have a cute boyfriend, and keep my mouth shut because in Haiti I learned not to shake hands with the devil. But on Joy Road, I will tell the truth. The truth will lead to my happiness, and I will drive long and far without anything in my way, like the path to New Jersey, to my mother, to her freedom, to my joy. Which road should I take, Papa Legba?”
Creole and Haiti stick to my insides like glue—it’s like my bones and muscles. But America is my skin, my eyes, and my breath. According to my papers, I’m not even supposed to be here. I’m not a citizen. I’m a “resident alien.” The borders don’t care if we’re all human and my heart pumps blood the same as everyone else’s.
Then I begin to see him for who he really is. Dray, with his sunglasses even as night spreads across the sky, and his gold cross gleaming, and his love/hate for my cousin, reminds me of the lwa Baron Samedi, guardian of the cemetery—keeper of death.
But I don’t want to look like a church lady. I still want to look...good. So I take off my mother’s church dress and put on a plain sweatshirt that belongs to Chantal and a pair of new jeans. I wear the Air Jordans that Pri picked out for me, but I keep my hairstyle. Now I don’t look so...Haitian. So immigrant.
“You did well in Haiti with my money. You think I was going to let my sister rot in the countryside with a new baby in her hands?”
“We prayed for you. When I was a young girl and I couldn’t even understand anything, I knew that it was my job to pray for my aunt and cousins because it was the only reason my papers said that I am American. We were grateful for that, not just for the money.”
“Matant Jo,” I say. “Bad Leg at the corner, he’s not just a crazy man. He is Papa Legba and he is opening doors and big, big gates. I will show you. I promise.”
She turns to me. “Child, this is Detroit. Ain’t no Papa Legba hanging out on corners. Only dealers and junkies. You don’t know shit. But don’t worry. You’ll figure it out.”
This is a makeshift altar for Ezili with all the things she loves in the world. My whole body tingles when I realize what’s happening.
Again, Papa Legba has opened another door. How could I have missed this? Of course, I need Ezili’s help, too. And she’d been right under my nose, working through Donna with all her talk about hair, jewelry, clothes, and beauty.
“Catholic school for all three of us out here was just pennies. But your ass over there in Haiti cost her like twenty Gs every year. Your school, money for your mom, your clothes. Hell, all this time, Ma thought y’all were building a mansion near the beach and she swore she’d go back down there to retire.
“But she’s getting sick. We don’t want her to do this loan-sharking shit anymore. Money was running out. We still gotta live, Fab. We still gotta breathe. Money’s just room to breathe, that’s all.”
I used to stare at that address whenever those white envelopes with the blue-and-red-striped edges would make their way to our little house in Port-au-Prince. I’d copy the address over and over again, 8800 American Street, because this house was my very first home. But for three short months only. This house is where I became American. This house is the one my mother and I prayed for every night, every morning, and during every ceremony: 8800 American Street.
So in 2000, Jean-Phillip François, the Haitian immigrant and the first occupant to actually land a job at a car factory—the Chrysler plant—paid the city three thousand dollars in cash for that little house on American Street.
And maybe because the little house had been revived with the sounds of babies and the scent of warm meals and love and hopes and dreams, Death woke from its long sleep to claim the life of Haitian immigrant and father of three Jean-Phillip François with a single bullet to the head outside the Chrysler plant.
Death parked itself on the corner of American and Joy, some days as still as stone, other days singing cautionary songs and delivering telltale riddles, waiting for the day when one girl would ask to open the gates to the other side.
How is this the good life, when even the air in this place threatens to wrap its fingers around my throat? In Haiti, with all its problems, there was always a friend or a neighbor to share in the misery. And then, after our troubles were tallied up like those points at the basketball game, we would celebrate being alive.
But here, there isn’t even a slice of happiness big enough to fill up all these empty houses, and broken buildings, and wide roads that lead to nowhere and everywhere.
I want to say sorry to Chantal. I want to ask her why, with all that money, they never bought a house here. I want to ask her why, with all her brains, is she selling drugs.
Even when I’m born again in Detroit, and I’m supposed to be free like the fucking wind, there’s still some shit trying to own my life—money and the bullshit jobs my moms had to work, these shitty streets, and this whole fucked-up system. When you remember all the ways you been killed, and how that shit hurt your fucking soul, ain’t no way in hell you can shake that off.
It’s war out here, son. If my pops and his pops before him been fighting all their lives to just fucking breathe, then what’s there for a little nigga to contemplate when somebody puts a gun in his hands?
We are all in white. Even Pri has shed her dark clothes and now wears a white turtleneck and pants. I had wrapped my cousins and aunt in white sheets after making a healing bath of herbs and Florida water for each one, and let them curl into themselves and cry and cry. This is what Manman had done for our neighbors who survived the big earthquake. The bath is like a baptism, and if black is the color of mourning, then white is the color of rebirth and new beginnings.