I gave her a key to my house so that she could always come back and rob me. I figured it was better Estelle take from me than from a pharmacy or a convenience store. Who wants to walk into a Walgreen’s and see their mother’s Polaroid on the Shoplifter’s Wall-of-Shame behind the register?
I was teaching junior high school then. I was terrified of seeing Estelle’s face among a gallery of boys no older than my students. I imagined her standing against a basement wall, shriveling under the fluorescent lights, as she waited for them to snap her picture. A security guard barking at her to keep her palms open, forcing her to flaunt the pathetic tub of Vaseline that she’d tried so hard to pinch.
I don’t know why, that day, when I came home from school and found my apartment door unlocked I turned and ran back downstairs. I knew instantly that it was her. This wasn’t the old Harlem, the one that she and I knew; an unlocked door didn’t always equal trouble. I knew Estelle was inside, and I guess I wanted nothing but for her to take what she needed and go.
I stood by the gate, bracing myself. I thought that she’d soon be finishing up, and any minute would emerge, her body slouching under the weight of my belongings. I pretended to be busy pulling out the store circulars and Chinese food menus stuck between the gate’s wrought-iron spears. But she didn’t come outside, so,I lifted the lids off the recycling bins, saw that my new tenants hadn’t washed their jars clean before throwing them out. Spaghetti sauce had spilled everywhere. I picked up the jar and thought about knocking on their door.
But just then I saw one of them coming up the block. It was the woman—Bergitte; they were from Denmark. I waved to her and held the gate open as she pushed her twins into the yard in their double stroller. They rented the garden apartment, but I knew little about them except that her husband was doing his PhD in Art History at Columbia. We had hardly spoken, though we were both around the same age, our mid-thirties. But that day, I so desperately wanted to talk—not about Estelle—about anything but Estelle. I hoped that Bergitte would invite me in. I stood there waiting for her to say something to me as she put her key in and flung open the door. Bergitte seemed to have forgotten me instantly, too busy wrangling the stroller and her towheaded children over the threshold.
I watched, still holding the jar, as she shut the door behind her, leaving me to wait for Estelle alone. I put the jar back in the bin, pulled the recycling to the curb, and turned and looked back at my house. The facade was newly restored, and just weeks before I’d had the brownstone repainted gray. I wondered if she would mention it.
Inside, the noise of my feet moving up the timeworn stairs seemed louder than ever. When I took over, after I asked Estelle to leave her own house, I had it converted into three apartments. I should have fixed the stairs, but putting up walls had been too expensive. I decided to live on the top floor because it was harder for her to reach.
At my door I saw that she’d taken off her shoes and left them on the rack. How considerate. I picked them up; they were scuffed loafers, two sizes too big, Goodwill castoffs. She had dumped a shopping bag full of black umbrellas in front of the door. Some had spilled out onto the mat. Her shoplifting was driven by weather, and it was supposed to rain the next morning. Estelle must have spent the morning and afternoon going from store to store taking umbrellas: easy to sell in a storm, standing by the mouth of the subway. Just like bottles of water in the summer.
I didn’t see her in the living room, but she’d taken off her coat–a mottled white mink that belonged to my grandmother–and left it on the floor. I picked it up and placed it on a hook, wondering again how she’d resisted pawning it.
I noticed that the picture that I’d hung over the fireplace was missing. I searched around the living room. She had hidden it as she always did, to remind me that it was I who’d first stolen from her.
I found it behind the couch. It was a terrible print, I knew, a too-cute photo of a baby in a ladybug costume, perched on the petal of an enormous flower. I put it there because I knew she’d hate it, like putting up a crucifix to ward off a vampire. I had always dreamt of the day when my mother would stop calling herself an artist.
I know the story so well now. She’d been telling it to me forever: Before my father divorced his first wife, Yvonne—it was six months after I was born—Yvonne ambushed Estelle as she was leaving the house and punched her in the face. That became her first good photo, her first self-portrait: Estelle’s Black Eye. June 1975. It hung over our fireplace for thirty years, until I sold it. I threw away the negatives too. She never forgave me for that.
But I can still remember my father begging her to take it down each time he came to visit. Was she surprised when he divorced Yvonne but didn’t marry her? Instead, he bought a bachelor pad way out in Jackson Heights. Perhaps, she should have been more compromising. But that photo was what got her started. She became a hit among a certain crowd of people, people who wanted to see, but didn’t want to know.
She photographed Harlem at its lowest, its burned-out shell: the vials on the playground, buildings on fire, pregnant junkies nodding off on park benches—she took a picture of my friend Kenneth Rudolph after he’d been electrocuted. He’d been trying to tap into a power line because his lights had been cut. Estelle took a lot of heat for that. No pun.
After that she went back to self-portraits: Estelle’s Track Marks, 1984. Estelle with John, 1985. Estelle begs for Change, 1986. She didn’t have a story to tell so she started using, and retold a familiar one.
I found her in the kitchen, sitting on the stool by the counter, digging through an oversized white patent leather handbag. She had already taken out a rubber strap and placed it on the counter. She was cursing to herself and didn’t notice me. She was still wearing the same ugly wig I’d seen her in the year before. Why had she shaved her head? One less thing to trouble her? The wig was raven black, short at the ends, with a collapsed bouffant—a cheap imitation of Diana Ross from her days with the Supremes.
Estelle sucked the air through her teeth as she searched. Her bare feet were dirty, almost as black as her wig. She took some objects out of her bag: her old Canon film camera, a model they haven’t made since the ‘70s (deep down, I’m proud of her for never going digital), Scotch tape, Vaseline, a few lighters. She found the needle, and was so pleased with herself she smiled as she slammed it down on the counter. She rolled up the sleeve of her billowy gray dress, picked up the strap, and then she saw me.
“I’ll do it in the bathroom,” she said. She swept the objects back in her bag with one arm, dropped it on the floor, held the stool steady with both hands until her feet touched the ground, and slid off. I wondered if she’d always been that small, or if her age was catching up to her.
I waited until I heard her close the door and turn the lock. I sat down at the kitchen table and took out seating charts for my classes. I had to move Natasha Rodriguez and Eric Jones far away from each other. They gave each other back rubs and pecked each other’s necks in class. I felt like I was the one being rude, like my teaching was intruding on their intimate moments; I couldn’t get through a whole lesson anymore.
When I was done I took out the quizzes I had given that day and started grading. She stayed in the bathroom for two hours. I should have told her that I needed to go.
When she came back into the kitchen she flipped the lights on. She dragged her feet over to the counter and climbed on the stool.
“How are things?” she said.
I told her about my lessons and let her help me with my model for my classes the next day.
We lit candles and let the wax drip into an aluminum tray. She watched the flame with her eyes half-closed. I had a bag full of candy hearts. Just before the last layer of wax hardened, I poured in the hearts.
“To show kids the effect of trans fat on the organs,” I told her.
“How did I make someone so boring?” she said.
She fell asleep still holding the candle. When it fell out of her hand some of the wax splashed onto her arm, some of it on her wig. But her cheek was against the counter and I knew that she wasn’t getting up. I thought about picking her up and tucking her into bed. I could have; she was that small. But I left her there.
That night I woke up over and over again, swearing I had finally heard the thud of Estelle falling off the stool.
The next morning I went out and brought back coffee from Starbucks, an egg-and-cheese for her from Jimbo’s. I found her awake, standing by the door to the spare bedroom in her underwear, with a drill in her hand, some screws in her mouth. I waited for her to finish.
“Look at this,” she said, pointing at the door, as if she’d had nothing to do with it. “The lock is on the outside now.”
“I want to stay here with you,” she said.
She looked at breakfast.
“I can’t eat that,” she said.
I threw her sandwich in the garbage.
“I want you to help me get clean”.
“We can go by the clinic later,” I said.
“No. I want to do it here. Look,” she said, jiggling the handle, “Just don’t let me out.”
“You want me to imprison you?”
She gestured at the coffee, and I handed it to her. She took a long sip, looking up at me over the cup.
“I’ll start when you get home from work. Then we’ll have the whole weekend together,” she said.
There’s a camera in my bag, and film,” she said. “Take pictures. I know it might be hard to look at me when I get sick. But take as many as you can manage. I know you’re busy, but I need to document this,” she said.
I said nothing. I just stared at her dirty little feet, as she walked into the room to get dressed, wondered when she would wash them again. She came back out in a different wig, auburn with pigtails, and offered to walk me to school.
Outside, it was raining. We walked down Frederick Douglass Boulevard; some bums had taken shelter under the scaffolding covering the steps of the Baptist church. She took a picture, and then we stopped for more coffee.
A group of Nigerian women wearing long mudcloth dresses sat on crates, guarded from the rain by the canopy of a hair salon. One woman, her dress different shades of green with a matching head wrap, broke from the group and approached us.
“You want your hair braided?” she asked.
Estelle lifted her wig slightly off her head to show her, and then refastened it. The woman started to walk away, but then Estelle grabbed her. I stared at her small fingers, urgently pressing into this stranger’s forearm.
“I’m an artist,” she said. “I know this is a personal question,” she said, “but have you, or any of those girls over there, been the victim of female circumcision? I’d like to take your picture.”
I’ll always remember the way the woman moved away from us–the way she floated backward, and twirled around gracefully as if suddenly picked up by the wind, looking wilted in the rain; she seemed to truly have the insignificant mass of a leaf.
When I got home that night I saw that someone had defaced the façade of the house. They had drawn a small penis in black marker above the doorbell. I could suspect no one else but Estelle. But I didn’t mention it when I found her in bed, under the covers, her wig on the floor. I made her tea. I placed it by her bedside, and she held my arm.
“Why didn’t you go to your father’s funeral?” she asked.
“That was eight years ago.”
She pulled the covers up over her nose. She looked ridiculous with her bald head and her beady black eyes. I should have said that it was because he’d hurt her, but instead I said, “because I didn’t care.”
Estelle shook her head, for the first time, as if she was disgusted by me. I wanted to ask her when it first dawned on her that she would never be anybody’s wife.
But instead I said, “You’re just mad you weren’t invited.”
“You should probably bring me a bucket and some paper towels.”
I brought them to her and closed the door. I heard her getting sick throughout the night. Soon, I could even smell it, but I didn’t feel like rushing in with the camera. I stayed awake and looked at the work of other artists. A photographer had taken a photo of Jesus submerged in a jar of his piss. Another had photographed a dead woman’s hollowed out head filled with flowers like a vase. I knew Estelle would be angry; she thought if she didn’t make every experience into a perverse joke she’d have no career. But it wasn’t enough anymore; I knew that she’d never have one again, regardless.
But months later, when she died on the living room couch, as if to make it up to her, before I called the ambulance, I took her picture, and placed it in her hand.
The EMT called the police and I had to spend an hour explaining why. They kept asking and looking at each other each time I told them. They eventually agreed to help me move the couch.
We left it on the curb, and I hoped someone would take it before the next morning. Before going to bed, I looked out the window and saw Bergitte and her husband, small in the distance, like little elves, their blond hair looking icy in the moonlight, moving the couch back in through the gate, and into their apartment. I could hear Estelle laughing at me.
Maisy Card was born on the island of Jamaica and raised in Jamaica, Queens. She received an MFA in Fiction from Brooklyn College and an MLS from Rutgers. She works as a librarian and currently lives in Newark, NJ. “Estelle’s Black Eye” is her first published story.