Rumpus Exclusive: “The Ides of March”
Exactly seven days before the PNM rally, seven days before Mr. H was shot, Miss Ivy had gotten a mysterious message from her best friend, Agnita: “Come this evening. It urgent. Walk with the cards.”
But Miss Ivy wasn’t sure she’d be able to make the visit. All the parents knew they were supposed to collect their children by 5:30 p.m. Yet somebody always had an emergency. That day, March 8th , it had been five-year-old Omari’s mother. She’d sent a message with another parent to say she’d pick him up by 7. What could Miss Ivy do? She couldn’t put the child out in the road. And, without any pickney of her own, Miss Ivy felt like a mother to them all.
Glancing off and on at the big Coca-Cola clock on the wall—the one with the polar bears, a Christmas gift from a parent—Miss Ivy chatted with Omari as she fixed his dinner. She chopped the brown ends off his bread-and-butter sandwich, she added a second dollop of condensed milk to his tea—he liked it really sweet. The boy was standing on a cushion, pretending to surf, and though his eyes were fixed on Miss Ivy’s black-and-white TV, his mouth chattered constantly.
“Mama Ivy, you know what?”
“My Aunty have a new Hindu man name Jagroop.”
Miss Ivy wanted to burst out laughing, but she was afraid Omari would be spooked into silence. She played it cool, asking in a casual tone, “Eh-heh? How you know that?”
“He does come by we. He did bring a yellow UNC jersey for Aunty, but my Grandpa say she can’t wear that and still live in we house.”
Now Miss Ivy did burst out laughing. Omari, poor thing, he didn’t know better. Election time was the worst time to leak out family politics. It could mean cut-eye from strangers, cold-shoulder from friends, or even “loss work” for his parents. But, as a seer-woman, Miss Ivy followed a personal code. “All skelingtons safe in my closet,” she told her clients.
“I know your Grandpa since we small as you,” she nodded at Omari. “That sound just like him. A staunch PNM.”
As he slurped his tea, Omari prattled on about Jagroop: that he had a big black truck with shiny wheels, that he took the boy for drives in it, that they went all over the place, but they couldn’t go to East Pleasantview because that’s where Jagroop’s family lived and he didn’t want nobody to see.
Miss Ivy was still paying close attention when the boy’s mother came hustling in, full of apologies. The polar bears on the wall said it was 6:25. Barely enough time to make it to Agnita’s and back before dark, but Miss Ivy would try, for her best friend’s sake.
Long, winding, and dismal by day, Evans Street was downright scary as night approached. There were no proper street lamps. Some, long ago smashed by young fellas wanting privacy to do their business underneath. Others told their age with a constant hum and flicker. Things were even more dangerous these days, with the rash of election-time road works.
A fat wind came off the mountain and barged its way down the street, nearly tumbling Miss Ivy into an open manhole in the pavement. She caught her balance just in time, drew the fur coat even closer around her bulk, and began to cuss—not even caring if people in the passing cars noticed she was talking to herself.
“Suppose I did fall in and dead? Eh? Every election is the same damn thing! Suddenly, box-drain and pavement. Drain and pavement. As if we could eat and drink concrete. The people want water!”
“And light,” Miss Ivy added, glancing up at the flickering street-lamps. What they really needed in Pleasantview was light.
Her hands stroked the puffy edge of the coat’s hood as she consoled herself. Her old boss, Mr. H, would surely win the next election and, when he did, he would fix everything. He might have a lot of bad ways, he might be the village ram, fucking anything in sight, but you couldn’t fault Mr. H for being a successful man-of-business: he would fix Pleasantview. Nobody could bully and get things done like him. Most people in Pleasantview were afraid of him but Miss Ivy wasn’t. She and Mr. H, they had an understanding. To this day, every time she popped into his cloth-store, he’d always find her in the aisles, fold a couple hundreds into her palm and wink. Unofficial payment. For all the secrets she’d kept over the years, and for continuing to keep them now, especially from Mrs. H.
Agnita’s bungalow came into view around the corner. Miss Ivy could just make out her friend, seated on the tiny verandah of the house that had remained unchanged since they were children.
“Oyyyyy!” Miss Ivy hollered, as she swung the gate.
“Ayyyyy, girl!” Agnita replied.
Squeezing herself into the other wicker chair, Miss Ivy said, “So I see we get pavement, doux-doux.”
“Yes, darling. Voting-time. That’s why I ask you to come. This election go be trouble. I frighten bad.” With the help of her cane and the chair handle, Agnita rose from the seat, even as she lowered her voice. “Come, let we go inside. Somebody might hear from the road.”
“Is about my Hezekiah.” Agnita’s voice was somber at the dining table now. “I overhear him last night, he and he friends, in the bedroom.”
“Who?” Miss Ivy asked. “Oh yes, your grandson. I so accustom calling the child ‘Silence’ like everybody else, I does forget he have a real name, yes. W’happen to he?”
“He get a work with Mr. H new campaign manager. You know who that is, right?”
Miss Ivy shook her head.
“You know him, man! A Indian fella. He own the fruits-place up in the Junction: Plenty Horn or Horn Plenty or something so. He used to be a big UNC man till couple weeks ago. I hear he was even going up for election against Mr. H. But he get catch in some whorehouse scandal, so UNC pull him off the slate. Jagroop, he name.”
Miss Ivy’s mind flipped back to little Omari’s story.
“Anyway,” Agnita continued, “Jagroop switch sides. He turn PNM now. And Silence and them boys been working with him in Mr. H campaign office. At first I was glad; I say Silence might meet somebody to fix him up with a good, steady work. Instead of just liming with them fellas, thiefing fruits and selling them by the traffic lights. But you know what Jagroop, that stink mudder-so-and-so, ask my quiet, gentle grandson to do?”
“What, girl?” Miss Ivy asked, leaning so far forward the front legs of her chair began to complain.
“Jagroop pick up the boys yesterday and carry them for a long ride in he fancy truck—like he did want privacy, nah. He say: since UNC shame he and he family, they must lose this election. He say he have a plan, and…”
Agnita began to sniffle and shake her head, as if she couldn’t bear to explain further.
While she waited, Miss Ivy clucked her tongue, offered Agnita napkins from the plastic holder on the table, and wondered if her friend knew the talk on the street about Silence: that he wasn’t such a quiet, gentle boy anymore; that he sold something other than fruits now; that he’d recently become a foot-soldier for Lost Boyz gang. Or was Agnita just like all the other Pleasantview mothers and grandmothers? Playing deaf and dumb until they ended up on the news crying, “He was a good boy, you know!”
Agnita continued in a shaky voice, “The big PNM meeting is next week—the fifteenth. Jagroop paying them boys to shoot at the stage while Mr. H talking. Not to kill him, eh. Just to frighten everybody. Jagroop say it go look like is UNC put a hit on Mr. H and everybody go turn against UNC and vote PNM.”
“Oh gaddoye!” Miss Ivy felt as if the short, kinky hairs at the base of her corn-rows just went dead straight. “What the ass this Jagroop-fella trying to do? Start a war? Suppose they miss and the bullet catch Mr. H?”
Miss Ivy had spent her entire sixty-eight years inhaling the rancid drain water of West Pleasantview. She’d lived through more elections and more funerals than most people in this overgrown scrap-yard of a town. But Miss Ivy couldn’t recall, in all her years, a single instance of someone being shot for political reasons.
“That is why I ask you to walk with your cards and everything,” Agnita said. “I so worried ’bout Silence!” She began wailing.
Miss Ivy wasted no time. She dug into her purse for the cards and began a long, vigorous shuffling. Her upper lip perspired and the deep furrows of her forehead slipped down to become a visor over her eyes. Silently, she begged God to grant her the gift—just this once—to really see the future. This wasn’t some domestic, who-fuckin’-who bacchanal, her usual fortune-telling domain. This was serious. This could be life or death. For either Mr. H or Agnita’s grandson.
“You have anything belonging to Silence? Something personal,” Miss Ivy asked.
Agnita, veteran of these rituals, was ready. “Look,” she replied, “I take this from the drawer. It clean.” From the pocket of her house-dress came a pair of jockey-shorts. Eggplant in color, with white piping.
Miss Ivy sprinkled the underwear with holy water from a tiny bottle. Then, gripping the crotch, she closed her eyes and began a rolling chant, “O Mother, O Mother! Mother Sita. O Mother! Mother Mary. O Mother! Mother Earth. O Mother!”
She opened her eyes and grabbed up the deck. Agnita gasped.
Miss Ivy began flipping cards expertly, making a snapping noise as each left the pack. At the first King, she stopped, studied the card and nodded.
Pleasantview people loved face-cards. Yes, she’d milk the face-cards for Agnita.
She flipped again until… a Queen. Then, another King.
Miss Ivy had enough for a story. She slammed the pack down. “That’s it! The Queen of Hearts—a woman—will come between the King of Diamonds and the King of Spades. The first King is Mr. H—the money-man. Then, you see how a Spade shape like a upside-down heart? That second King is Jagroop—deceitful. But don’t worry, Silence ain’t showing up nowhere in these cards. He safe. Like Jesus briefcase.”
Rumpus original art by Sumayya Ansari.
Excerpted from Pleasantview by Celeste Mohammed. Copyright © 2021 by Celeste Mohammed. Reprinted by permission, courtesy of Ig Publishing.