After Kmart, we drove to the Winn-Dixie, where I now shop. I used to eat so little that it wasn't worth going to the supermarket and I'd just pick up something, yogurt, or chicken, or soup, at a convenience store. That's where I found the child, in a mini-mart on the east side of Dixie High- way, down south someplace. I forget what I was doing there, but sometimes, at night, in the summer, the sticky heat and the insect noises remind me of Africa, and I have to ride, to hear the mechanical sounds of driving and smell exhaust, the dear stench of my homeland, and feel the wind of speed on my face. At around two in the morning, I went in to get a cold drink and she was there, filthy, in ragged shorts and a torn pink T-shirt and flip-flops, standing in the aisle. She was shaking.
I said to her, "Are you okay? Are you lost?" She didn't answer. The woman behind the counter was fussing with the frozen slush machine and had her back turned. I walked away to the drink console.
As I reached for a cup, I heard the first slap and looked around. The mother was there, a large tan woman in her twenties, with her hair in curlers under a green print scarf. She was wearing Bermudas and a tube top that barely covered her bobbling breasts. Whoever she had once been, that person was gone, or in deep hiding, and only a demon stared out of the red-rimmed eyes. The child was holding her hand to her ear, and her face was screwed up like a piece of crumpled tinfoil, but she made no sound.
"What did I tell you? Huh?" said the mother. She held a forty-ounce bottle of malt liquor in one hand. With the other she beat the child, big roundhouse blows that knocked the little girl against a frozen-food lowboy hard enough to bounce.
"What did I tell you, you stupid little bitch? Huh? (Slap.) Huh? Did I tell you not to move? (Slap.) I told you not to move, didn't I? (Slap.) Wait'll I get you back home, I'll fix you good. (Slap.) What the fuck you lookin' at, bitch?"
This last was directed at me. I pulled my eyes away from the scene and left. I stood with my cold hands pressed to the warm hood of my car and took deep breaths. I thought of what the Olo say, of something that happens between an adult and a particular child, part of their weird rearing practices. But that was in Africa, I told myself. I tried hard to shut down the feeling.
I heard the door of the mini-mart slam open and the mother and her child emerged and walked toward the corner of the little building. There was a dark alley there that led to the next street, where I supposed they lived. It was a typical South Dade highway-side neighborhood, small concrete-block stucco houses, a few low apartment buildings, still looking bare and exposed after Hurricane Andrew. The woman was holding her forty-ounce beer bottles slung over her wrist in their plastic carrier bag, and was dragging the child along by the arm, twisting it cruelly, muttering to herself. The child was trying to relieve the pain by turning herself toward the woman and in the process, just as they passed into the alley, the girl got in the way of the woman's legs and she tripped. They both went down on the rough limestone gravel. The woman saved her bottles and let the girl fall on her back. Then the mother yelled out a curse and got to her feet and kicked the girl in the side. The girl curled up into fetal position and covered her head with her pipe-cleaner arms, whereupon I ran up to them yelling, "Stop that!"
The woman turned and glowered at me. "Get the fuck outa here, bitch! Mind your own fuckin' business." I moved closer and I could smell the sweat and the alcohol boiling off her.
"Please. Let her alone," I said, and she took two staggering steps toward me and launched a clumsy overhand blow at my head.
I caught her arm in hiki-taoshi and brought it around behind her back, ude-hineri, and bent her over double and marched her a few yards away and pressed her face into the gravel. I had not done any serious aikido in years but it turned out to be something you don't forget how to do, like riding a bike. I said, "Stay here, please, I'm going to see if your little girl is all right." And I rose and walked back to where the child lay unmoving.
The foregoing is excerpted from Tropic of Night by Michael Gruber. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.
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