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Proper Care And Maintenance

June 30, 1991|Susan Straight | Susan Straight introduced Darnell, and the other characters who populate "Proper Care and Maintenance," in her first book, "Aquaboogie," a novel in stories published last fall by Milkweed Editions. "Darnell, she says, "is my favorite character, because he doesn't give up, doesn't give in." Straight, 30, grew up in Riverside, graduated from USC, earned a master's degree from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and then returned to her old San Bernardino County neighborhood, which she calls "a talking place, not a reading place, so nobody really understands what I do," She has just completed her latest work, a novel called "Living Large."

"See, man, I told you she was gon do it--she pimpin' you, Darnell." Victor shook his head and watched Charolette hang out the window of the El Camino. "She pimpin' you big-time."

"Daddy!" she yelled, her round face bobbing furiously above the door. "I want juice! In my mouth !"

Darnell turned away from Victor and Ronnie and the other men sitting on folding chairs and boxes in the vacant lot. A blackened trash barrel breathed smoke in the early morning cool, and the pepper tree branches dangled around them. "I'm fixin' to go over my dad's," Darnell said. "He told me Sixth Avenue Baptist wants somebody to clean up that lot they got behind the church. I'll be back tomorrow, Victor."

He started toward the El Camino, and Victor called out, "Damn, homey, I might be a stockbroker by then." Ronnie and the others laughed.

He put Charolette back in her car seat and she said, " Daddy , I hungry. Hurry." She watched out the window, saying, "Fire, Daddy," when they circled around the lot to the street.

"Yeah, smoke," he said, and she looked triumphant. She was almost 2, trying to learn about a hundred words a day. She stuck out her chin and sang to herself now, while he tried not to smile.

He hadn't wanted a baby--Brenda had surprised him. When Brenda first brought her home from the hospital and laid her on a quilt in the living room, Charolette had spent hours sleeping on her stomach and Darnell had had all day to stare at her. The government funds had been cut off for seasonal firefighters. He stared at Charolette, but all he could think was that she looked like a horny toad, those rounded-flat lizards that ran past him when he was close to the fire; they'd streak out from the rocks, looking ridiculous. Charolette's belly was distended round and wide, far past her nonexistent butt, and her spindly arms and legs looked useless. He'd sat home watching this baby, impatient with the helpless crying and the way she lay on her back waving her limbs like a turned-over beetle.

Now she was old enough to talk smack, and he could jam her right back--she understood. When he pulled into the driveway at his father's house, she ran inside for his mother's hot biscuits, and then she ran back to him, hollering, "Daddy, blow on it!"

"You so bad, blow on it yourself," he said, and she spit rapidly at the steaming biscuit. "Yeah, right," he laughed. "Wet it up."

Darnell's mother came to the doorway in her robe. "Brenda restin'?"

"Sleepin' 24-7," Darnell said. "All day, except when she at work."

"That's how it is your first three months," his mother said, getting that blurry look like every woman who found out Brenda was pregnant again. "You sleep like somebody drop a rock on your chest. I remember."

Darnell didn't mind waking up at 6, when the curtains were just starting to hold light. Charolette called for him now. If he had a job, he had to start early anyway, before it got too hot. Brenda was a clerk for the County of Rio Seco and didn't have to go to work until 9. So Darnell left her in the warm tangle of sheets and took Charolette to his father's, where the men sat in their trucks drinking coffee before they went out. His father and Roscoe Wiley trimmed trees; Floyd King and his son Nacho hauled trash from construction sites. They all made a big deal of Charolette still in her footed sleeper, stamping from lap to lap and trying to pull dashboard knobs.

This morning Roscoe took her into his pickup truck and gave her a smell of his coffee. "Red Man, this girl stubborn as you," he said to Darnell's father.

Darnell watched Charolette poke at the glass. "Window dirty," she said.

"Least she look a lot better," Floyd said from his cab. "Next one gotta look like Brenda, cause this one look like Darnell spit her out his ownself."

Yeah, Brenda hated hearing that, Darnell thought. He remembered when the baby began to stare back at him, to crawl, and then her eyebrows grew in thick-curved like his, her teeth spaced and square like his.

His mother came out to the driveway for the newspaper. "Y'all need to look for a bigger place," she said. "A house, for Charolette to play in the yard. And you get a house, we can find a washer so Brenda won't drag that laundry up and down no apartment stairs."

"Mr. Nard rentin' out his brother's house on Pablo," Floyd called. "Got three bedrooms, and he want $625 a month."

"Yeah, and we can barely pay our $400 now," Darnell said.

"I told you get you some yards," his father said. "Steady yards, like I did."

"You ain't got no cleanup jobs for me next week?" Darnell said, looking at the thin chain-saw scar on his father's forearm.

"Yeah, Sixth Avenue Baptist wants you to do the lot--take two of you, two-day job."

"You gon get Victor?" Nacho said.

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