COTTONBALL by Aleigha K. Spinks

“Ni***s pray and pray on my downfall / But every time I hit the ground I bounce up like round ball…” Jay-Z spat into the mic in front of him. He’d seen this concert a million times. It was one of Grandma’s favorite recordings; old yet clear.. Almost as if she’d ripped it onto the VHS tape just yesterday. He could feel the waves of sound brush against as his head rocked back and forth on the ball of his neck. A welcome distraction. 

“Grease,” Grandma cooed. He lifted the tub up high enough for her to dip her fingers in. She swiped a dollop, placing it on the back of her left hand and went back to work. Saturday sunlight illuminated the pale-yellow glob. The purr of the fan wafted the sweet smell throughout the muggy room. One of the few scents that didn’t make his stomach upset. 

“Now, didn’t I tell you to hit up this scalp more often? Gon’ give yourself a sore you keep leaving your head dry like this.” 

“Sorry,” he replied. He’d heard this speech at least once every other month for as long as he’d remembered. Truth was, he couldn’t stand the feeling of grease between his fingers. It never washed off. He liked his hands clean more than he cared about a flaky scalp. His head would end up itching with or without braids, he thought, scalp greased or not. He was helplessly dry; Eczema, dry hair, a dry disposition. Dad nicknamed him Cotton Ball before he could speak, C.B. for short; a play on his skins inability to retain moisture. Not enough water or lotion in the world could help. He knew that. 

He also knew that despite being 15, he had enough wits about him to admit that he actually really liked his face. As Grandma would say, he looked different: big brown eyes, blondish-brown curls, and freckled cheeks; once pudgy with bouncing baby fat, now as if cut from sandstone. He was her beautiful mixed baby and she never let him forget it. Our world harmonzin’. The rough patches of flesh checkered across his body only ruined the illusion. 

12:16pm. Done. Grandma secured the end of the last braid with a clear elastic. Heading to the sink, she caught a glimpse of his expression, downtrodden. Tired. 

“Fix your face,” she called, as she pumped the last bit of soap out of the bottle and lathered her hands beneath the tap. “Why my baby lookin’ so down?” 

“Nothing. Sorry,” he replied. “They not puttin’ you in any wigs now, are they? Remember them braids got to last you a coupla weeks. I’m not tryin’ to have you here on my floor again two days from now lookin’ homeless. My baby ain’t homeless.” Another one of Grandma’s favourite topics: longevity. 

“No. I have to wear a hat and that’s it. I promise I’ll make them last.” But, he often felt homeless. Grandma had taken him, Sister, and Dad in a year ago. As comfortable as Grandma had tried to make the stay (which she incessantly reminded Dad was temporary) he knew they were infringing on her space. At 72, Grandma was as active as any 52-year-old. She was his best friend, one of the few people he’d learned he could rely on. He knew the clutter of three extra bodies was doing her a disservice. Especially since two were under the age of 18. Still, he did his best to help out where he could: helping rid fresh fish of their scales for dinner, vacuuming rugs, potty-training Sister. The upkeep helped curve his constant itch to clean, but besides that, he knew this wasn’t his home. Just a home. 

Another glance at the clock. 12:20. He had 25 minutes to gather what he needed and hit the sidewalk to make it on time. He ran up the stairs into his room and yanked a pair of worn out Reebok classics from his closet. The off white looked out of place amongst his large sneaker collection, most pristine and unworn, but remained the only pair he really cared about. Dad had surprised him with a new pair a month after losing the house. A consolation prize. Shoes didn’t really interest him. He’d begged to have the money saved up for a new space, for Grandma’s sake. Still, the sneakers kept coming. He laced quickly and grabbed the hooked backpack from the inside of the closet door. He knew the walk to school would take 15 minutes. 

He crouched and felt under his bed, arms long and agile, dust gliding beneath his fingers. He’d have to take care of the dust later. Just the sight of it made him itch. Finally, his hands found metal. He swiped the tap shoes from the shadows and stuffed them into his backpack. Size 12. Embarrassing. 

Last fall, he and Grandma had gone from shop to shop to find shoes that would fit him. Several department stores with each sales associate gawking at his size. They’d smile and then slowly shake their heads “no” as if to say not now and good fucking luck. At 6’2” summer had stretched his limbs to a point unseen on Dad’s side of the family. Sorry, he’d whisper to Grandma every time they struck out, thinking fuck me – I can’t believe this is going to be what I deal with for the rest of my life. At last, they came across a little family owned store full of sequins and robin egg tulle. The woman behind the cramped counter sized him on sight; a rarity he’d never forget. 

He stuffed a large black binder in his bag. Outside, the sound of a motor came to a halt. Then the slamming of a car door. Then the screen door. He glanced at the digital clock resting on the dresser. 12:31pm. No, no, no! Zipping the sack, he rushed back down the stairs and into the dining room, where Grandma sat, tea in hand, reading. 

“Look at you lookin’ fresh like you somebody,” the sound of Dad’s voice bounced off of the walls behind him. Heavy hands crashed down on his shoulders, making his slight frame teeter. “I’mma need you to watch Sister tonight. I got shit to take care of.” 

He’d named this Saturday’s Cycle: Dad disappearing in the middle of Friday night, Sister waking him up begging for breakfast in pajamas soaked in cold piss, taking care of the kitchen so Grandma could get her rest, pouring cereal and staying up with sister almost hungover from the lack of sleep due to last night’s school work. All for Dad to roll back in high and mighty on Saturday afternoon, smelling of stale cologne and asking for favors. The cycle was impossibly predictable. 

“Can’t. I have first dress today,” he muttered, itching to make it to the other side of the screen door. 

“Can’t my ass.” The smell of liquor on Dad’s breath wasn’t lost on him. “No. I’m running late,” he said, attempting to squeeze past. He was losing time. “The fuck you mean no?!” 

Dad’s hands crashed into his chest, sending him backwards into the table. His backpack clinked down onto the wood, causing Grandma’s tea to spill. He was, in fact, taller, but Dad easily had an extra 50 pounds on him. It was moment’s like these he wished he knew how to maneuver his limbs. 

“I’ll watch the baby. I’mma be home anyway,” Grandma called. “Boy, if you don’t man up!” The sting of tears lingered on his skin. The wetness took him by surprise; when had he started crying? This wasn’t the first time Dad had put his hands on him that week. On Tuesday, Dad had come home from work early and caught him practicing his moves in the living room with Sister. She loved to learn, especially Maxi Ford’s. Twirlers, she called them. 

Without warning, Dad took him by both arms, lifted him off the ground, and threw his body into the sofa. I have a son and a daughter. Not two fucking daughters. Act like it, Dad had yelled before wobbling into the kitchen for a clumsy glass of water. One arm still held a yellowing bruise, where Dad’s thumb had pushed into his flesh. 

“I’ve got her. You let that baby go,” Grandma said, sopping up the puddle of liquid with a paper napkin. She tilted her head toward the front door, as if to say, Go. You’re safe. But, go now! 

He adjusted his backpack and sidestepped past Dad’s firm body. The familiar scent of gin pooled his nose. 

“That’s your ass tonight,” Dad whispered. The only person Dad wouldn’t argue with in the world was Grandma. For that, C.B. was grateful. 

Keeping his head down, he trailed the short hallway, and snapped through the screen door. Yes. Freedom. 

“You’re gonna have to give up that faggot shit,” Dad’s voice called, “nobody likes a faggot.” 

The crunch of his strides filled the quiet suburban street. He checked his phone. 12:36. Shit! Breaking into a run, the metal of his tap shoes banging against his lower back, he turned the corner. The pulse in his head boomed against his fresh braids. It’s bad enough being the only black kid at school, he thought. Now I’m a faggot

The truth was, the only thing he had to hold onto at that school was his blackness. All of his years being a straight A student didn’t stop him being sent to the principal’s office in February. Why aren’t we learning any Black History?, he’d asked his History teacher, Mr. Feldstein. We’re already rushing through the syllabus, son. It’s a waste of time. There aren’t even any black students here, Mr. Feldstein answered. And for the first time C.B. lost it. The months that followed only brought on jokes and questions from his classmates he didn’t feel equipped to answer. 

Girls had just started paying attention to him at school; twirling their hair around their fingers every time they talked to him. Giggling. Sending him unsolicited Snapchat videos. The attention was uncomfortable. He’d never thought about girls, or boys, or sex even. He’d only had one wet dream about his elementary school best friend, Dev, but it wasn’t sexual. Just him and Dev running the track behind school, cheering each other on to beat their best times. In high school, stories of heavy petting and the color of girl’s panties were all the gossip and he barely knew how to maneuver. Just getting through until graduation was the goal. 

Cutting through the air, his hands latched into the loops of the fence. He hoisted himself up and over. His favorite part of his commute was climbing that fence. It was the one time of day he thought his height made sense. He touched down onto the green football field, checked: 12:43. Again, a sprint across the field, until he hit the back door, yanked it open, and stumbled down the hall a few feet to the locker room. At his locker, he wrestled with the lock. 21 left, 6 right, 31 left. He jerked it open, dropped his jeans to his ankles and into the locker, replacing them with a pair of black joggers. He slammed the metal door shut, latched it secure, and scooped up his bag. Jogging down the hallway, he made a sharp right and then a left, into the auditorium. 

“Full out today, guys, we need to make sure everything comes together properly,” he heard whilst weaving his way through the darkened house. In the audience sat cast mate after cast mate. Then two solid rows of the school band, their instruments sitting awkwardly in their laps. Stage center sat a small woman clad in black from head to toe. Hair slicked back, red lips always, Miss Patson, the 10th grade English teacher, couldn’t have been any older than 42. She had a beauty about her that was worldly, much different than most of the stuffy teachers who gloated about spending their childhoods in the school’s halls. High cheekbones dawned her face, tugging at the corners of her lips as if she always had a joke she was keeping for just the right moment. He wondered how someone like her could possibly end up in such an ordinary place. She was the only teacher that saw him. What’d you like? What’d you learn?, she’d ask at the end of each class. And although he barely ever raised his hand to share, he loved going over the things he’d like about the lesson in his mind. 

“Nice of you to show up, CB!” Miss Patson’s voice had a soothing treble, even when bordering on disappointment. He nodded, sighing with frustration. Sorry itching his tongue. 

She held up her hand, deciding against pressing for an explanation. “It’s okay. But, this is your one strike. M’kay? Your suit is waiting backstage. Everyone up, warm and ready! Once CB is ready we’ll run EASY TO LOVE quickly and then top of show. Let’s see if we can make it through a full run today.” 

Yanking the taps out, he flung his bag into one of the dark blue velvet covered seats and slipped off his sneakers. Climbing the stairs at the front of the stage, he watched as his peers glistened in the pools of light, all clad in their new costumes; every piece fresh and sculpted to the contours of their still growing bodies. Sequins galore. Sailor suits. 1950’s style bathing suits. Wigs tightly curled and quaffed bounced around as a few freshmen clicked away at time steps. The sight would make anyone believe in magic. 

Anything Goes was the musical that spring, and he’d snagged his first big role; Billy, pissing off the two senior boys that actively tried to participate in the musicals. All of the other boys were herded and begged by Miss Patson to participate, eventually giving in at the mention of free food and extra English credit. But not him. He’d auditioned because it gave him all the more reason to avoid Grandma’s. 

Stage right, in the wings, under an index card with his name scribbled across hung a long black suit and satin top hat. A crisp, white shirt peeked beneath the lapel. It all looked fit for a giant, leaving him to question whether any of it would fit at all. This is my shape, he thought. I can make this work. Slipping off his joggers and his t-shirt, revealing patches of flaking skin across his thighs, he did his best to adorn himself in all the new. The white shirt was freshly starched and felt stiff to the touch. He glided it on, his fingers almost too large to pop the buttons through their holes. Quickly, he stuffed the extra fabric into his trousers, zipped up, and threw on the jacket. Carefully, he placed the hat on his head, still tender, as to not mess up Grandma’s work. Fumbling to slip into his taps, onto the stage he hopped. 

“Handsome!” Miss Patson’s voice came from somewhere back of the house, but the flood of lights made it hard for him to spot exactly where. “Trousers are a little long. I’ll hem them a bit more for you tonight. Be careful you don’t slip, okay?” 

“Okay.” He could feel his face begin to boil and his hands grow cold. There was something about just being there, on that stage, in that space, that felt sacred. As if the rest of his world melted into the pit along with the orchestra. This was cellular. This was as real as the bruise on his arm and the smell of Dad’s breath. 

Two loud claps came from the dark house in front of him. “Places please. EASY TO LOVE.” As the bright lights faded into blackness, he looked down at the stage speckled with lime green marks. He took the one perfectly in the center. The rest of the cast scuttled into the wings. 

Waves of blood rushed his tender scalp. Big breath in, long breath out. On the breath out: his shoulders dropped, scalp tingled, knees loosened, arms dangled, and eyes closed. The buzz of it all enveloped him in the plush reality that he might fail or fall. Or he might black out, gracefully riding the machinery of it all. Black out, he decided. Big breath in, long breath out. His eyes flicked open, the rustle of woodwinds in front of him guiding him back into the moment. From back of house: “Okay. Lights go!” Light’s punched. Music swarmed. And the rest faded away. 

Aleigha K. Spinks is a NYC-based interdisciplinary badass babe. Her literary essays, personal essays, and poetry can be found in FROTH Magazine, Strong Young Thing Magazine, and Issues 1-3 of Susie Magazine.

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