The morning after Philonia received the scariest phone call she never imagined, she prayed that her affair with a married man would remain a secret to her mother. “Please don’t let Mom find out, God, please.” She recited that prayer like a chant, fast and throaty, until her dry tongue and chapped lips became unbearable.
The woman on the other end said she was going to wreck Philonia if she didn’t stop messing with her man. Philonia didn’t believe the woman would ever have the opportunity to hurt her. Grown people don’t just pick fights, she thought. Four semesters living on campus and she hadn’t seen anyone scuffle the way students regularly did in high school. Home for the summer and the walls of security were inconveniently collapsing. She sensed by the fury in the woman’s voice that she was capable of real harm. Suddenly she felt too weak to hold the phone to her ear.
“He’s sleeping right beside me,” said the woman, who sounded outraged that she could or would ever have to have that conversation while he slept. Then her tone changed and she became boastful: “He will never leave me.”
“Who is this?” Philonia said, feigning confusion. She had never seen the woman or heard her voice before then, but there was only one possibility.
“Bitch, don’t play with me. I will rock you!”
“You have the wrong number.” Philonia rushed the words. “Don’t call me again.”
Philonia tried to hang up the phone, but her hands shook so badly that she couldn’t connect her finger to the END CALL button on the first attempt. She tried once more, then dropped the phone on the bed beside her. Grateful for the gift of having her own room in her parent’s house, she put her hand on her chest and wiped the dew that gathered above her lip. Then she slid along the spine of her mattress, resting her head on the edge of her pillow and nosing the excess pillowcase. She switched the phone to vibrate and within seconds, it began to bump against her hand. When it finally stopped and she could recount the night’s events without interruption, she decided that she had been assaulted by a crazy gal making outrageous threats. She was convinced that she didn’t deserve to be threatened even if the woman had the right phone number and she was in fact, sleeping with her man. She lay there for almost an hour, shivering in her own sweat, trying to picture the moment that her boyfriend exposed her identity to his wife. When the thought of betrayal ballooned in her mind, she buried her head deeper into the pillow, pressing down on the invisible pricks of “should’ve known better.”
When the phone vibrated again, Philonia answered without saying hello. “How did you get my phone number?” She spoke unlike herself, demanding and impatient.
“Philonia, you all right?” Ava’s sugar-crusted bark roused her daughter to full consciousness.
“Oh no! What time is it?”
“Half-past seven. You’re late for work and I could have used your help opening the bakery,” Ava said.
“I’m sorry, Mom, I’m on my way.”
“What did you mean when you said, ‘how’d I find your phone number?’” Ava asked.
“Never mind,” Philonia said. “I’m sorry.”
Philonia listened to Ava complain of a pinch in her wrist that morning after the woman called. She offered to massage peppermint oil into her mother’s joints once the devil’s pies had finished their time in the oven, but then a line of customers had formed, and then lunchtime arrived, and then her father had called to check in on things. Skillman stayed home, on doctor’s orders, since his heart attack. There he monitored the bills and thought of ways to increase business profit, always calling the bakery and asking to be put on speaker after The Young and the Restless finished airing. “We could up the price of the devil’s pies by twenty percent,” he said. “Folks will do anything for that creamy cocoa filling.”
“He’s right, Mom,” Philonia said, careful not to show him too much favor. “There’s nothing like your pies anywhere.”
“Uh-huh,” Ava yawned. It wasn’t long before she sensed him tiring of her cold reception. “Oh look, there’s a customer who needs help,” she said, and abruptly ended the call.
“You don’t have to be like that,” Philonia said.
“Yes I do.”
“The bakery only breaks even. Doesn’t that bother you?”
Ava shrugged and returned to the pleasure that she found in baking. When the brushed butter on the pie crust shimmered like sunlight kissing the citrine crystals that she kept on top of the cash register, her smile lingered long enough for it to seem indecent to ask why. The bitter burst of cocoa nib in her mouth tickled her and she patted the little corner of her face where her jaw met her neck and quietly squealed. Skillman hadn’t spoiled those things for his wife.
“You really should consider Dad’s idea,” Philonia said.
“Making more money isn’t an issue for me, it’s your father and his dirty habit.”
“He’s been trimming the top of our account for months and giving it to his woman,” she said. “I’m no fool.”
That couldn’t be right, Philonia thought. He’d never do such a thing so cruel, especially not after reckoning with the hospital bills from his heart surgery. She wanted to defend him the way that she’d want someone to try and make sense of her own scandal.
“He’s not seeing her anymore,” Philonia said. “Besides, he would never do that to us.”
“How do you you know? The next time you see her at BJs, you should ask her when is the last time she’s seen him.”
“Why don’t you ask her yourself?” It had been a couple of months since Ava found out about her husband’s mistress. She had bawled in Philonia’s arms, enacted a brutally long silent treatment against her husband, and declared a ban against the woman’s employer. She petitioned Philonia to buy the bakery’s supplies elsewhere, but the savings at BJs were too good to deny. So, since Skillman’s heart attack, she asked Philonia to do all of the shopping.
Philonia and Skillman met Yvonne one autumn day about a year ago when holiday orders flooded the bakery. She summoned them to her line and quickly started to ring up the cases of flour they needed. She wore metallic blue eyeshadow and bell-bottomed pants. The sleeves of her brown and gold chevron print leotard peeked beneath her uniform polo. Skillman asked her for her name.
“She was friendly.”
“She’s fast and knows we need to get back to the store,” he’d said while unpacking the shopping cart into the car.
“You told her about the bakery?”
“We talked it up a bit when you went to grab another case of flour.”
Philonia didn’t think much of them talking until a week after her father’s heart trouble when she journeyed to BJs alone. Upon seeing Yvonne’s made down face, she wondered if she heard correctly when Yvonne said, “tell your father to call me; I’ve got something to make him feel better.” Philonia wrinkled her face, which prompted Yvonne to explain that she had a drink that would help his heart regain strength. She pulled a small bottle of cloudy liquid from her pants pocket. “Tell him to drink it straight and hot,” she had said. Yvonne sounded loopy, like she had tested the potion that might make his heart slower than it should. The idea of a steaming cup of unidentifiable liquid made Philonia think of her mother, who wouldn’t eat for two whole days and only drank tea and whiskey when her father had to be rushed to the hospital. Her mother had only wished to make her husband feel better too.
“How did you know he was sick?” The dinging sound of barcode against scanner got loud and so fast that it began to mimic a broken record. Philonia wasn’t sure if Yvonne had heard her question, so she asked again.
“I’m the one who told the ambulance to take him to Einstein and not Misericordia.” Yvonne held her hand to her heart. “I heard the patients rarely die in white hospitals and when they do, the family gets to say goodbye.”
In the parking lot, Philonia held the bottle to the sunlight before throwing it on the ground where its contents lay flat and helpless.
“You need to leave right now,” Philonia pushed herself away from the woman’s clutch. The woman twisted Philonia’s shirt so tight in her fist that Philonia heard the woman’s knuckles crack. When she got free, she put her hands on her hips and tried to stop shaking.
“I’m not going to tell you again. Next time I’m going to show you that I’m serious,” said the woman. She flew out of the bakery, taking all of the sweet calm of resting pies with her.
“Stay away from here!” Philonia said to the swinging door. As she turned to face her mother, she saw Ava run to the back of the store.
Ava wouldn’t look at Philonia. Instead, she hid between two aisles of baking supplies and carry out containers. Philonia called her name and begged her to talk. “I’m sorry you had to see that,” she said while straightening her shirt collar.
“You’re screwing a married man? That’s lower than low.” Ava paced the aisles and pulled at her hairline.
“Mom, calm down. I’ve got it under control.”
“I can’t believe you,” Ava said. She let out a scream into her palms. “Women like you have made my life a living hell.”
“Women like me?”
“Naive, irresponsible, impulsive,” Ava scoffed. “I bet you think that woman won’t run up on you again because you told her not to.”
Philonia looked at her trembling hands and realized the possibility of another, more physical confrontation. She didn’t want to talk about it anymore. She was scared and embarrassed, and the secret that she didn’t want her mother to know was now as naked as the nights she spent with her boyfriend.
“Like I said, I’m sorry. Now will you help me reopen the store?” Philonia said as her mother took up the pacing again. “I don’t see why you’re so upset. If you hate what dad did so much, divorce him.”
Ava flared her nose and raised her hands over her head as if some goddess would descend from the pantry ceiling to rescue her from her daughter’s simple advice. “I took vows and I’m not throwing that away. It’s the hussy who needs to take a hike, not the wife.” She pushed Philonia out of the way, knocking over a bag of flour. “That woman was right for coming here and warning you she’d beat your ass.”
They reopened the store and sold out of devils pies before closing time. Ava and Philonia worked silently, waving off disappointed customers looking for an after dinner fix. After they cleaned up and counted the money, Ava apologized for what she’d said.
“You deserve better than someone’s seconds. I don’t think you’ve really given love a chance. I mean, you’re only 20 and stunning, home from college for the summer. Why settle for someone who’s already been around the block?”
“I make him happy,” Philonia said, while opening a cabinet door, which hid her face. “That makes me happy.” She wondered if Yvonne’s reasons were the same. Yvonne didn’t seem to be a terrible person. She might have saved her father’s life.
“You need other people in your life who can make you happy,” Ava said. “Come with me to my women’s group. It’d be good for you to meet folks who thought they couldn’t quit a man even though their hearts were being pummeled. I’m going tomorrow. You should come.”
Philonia hesitated, waiting for Ava to leave the pantry first. She took out the trash bags that sat near the dumpster door. There were two—one bag looked easy to carry but had a gray pool of dank liquid forming under it; the other bag was bloated and looked like it would hurt her back. She couldn’t decide which one to hoist into the dumpster first.
Philonia woke in the middle of the night to the trenchant sound of ringing, ringing, ringing. She thought that it would stop after the fifth round, but it went on until she counted nine. Finally, her phone sighed, then its rectangular face beamed neon, signaling a voicemail.
She felt the same phantom stomach punch that she felt when her boyfriend’s wife confronted her at work earlier that day. She replayed the woman’s razor sharp words in her mind. “Bottom bitch,” the woman had said, while pointing at Philonia. Her triangular-tipped nails mocked knives and compelled Philonia to flinch.
Her phone went dark and quiet. She relished the notion that she wielded power in her passiveness. She listened and concentrated on the wife’s raucous voice and braced against the sounds of lurid phrases—“trashy ass ho” and “pathetic hoochie”—like punches from an angry mob. The cuss words, one by one, landed on her head. She lay there, wondering how long before the woman would lose it entirely and throw a fist. No, they were mostly empty insults, she reasoned. Yet she couldn’t shrug off the threats to her body. “I won’t stop calling until you’re out of our lives,” the woman said in her message. Philonia decided that she had to quit her boyfriend, but she wanted to tell him first.
“Are you ready?”
“Meet me out front.”
They got into the car wearing their Sunday best. Philonia hadn’t been to church since middle school, but she remembered the fullness of that communal gathering. The day the woman confronted her at the bakery, Ava reminded her of how isolating shame could be.
“Do you blame me for what Dad did to you?”
“Why would I blame you?”
“I didn’t have to tell you about Yvonne.”
“I don’t blame you, I just don’t want you to ever think that I’m on your side in this mess you’re in. A part of me wants to smack you the way that woman said she would.” Ava turned off the car and stepped out. Philonia followed her into a storefront next to a church on East 225th Street.
A woman dressed in black and wearing a button that said, “Love God Herself,” answered the door. Ava introduced Philonia and asked if anyone else had arrived yet.
The space was a dimly lit, railroad-style room with tealights lining the floor. Soft piano music played while two other women stood near a coffeemaker that was set up near a barred window. A sign-in sheet on the folding table read, “Meeting #57” on the top. The other women waved Philonia over and began introducing themselves. She could tell that she wasn’t the youngest by the way one attendee meticulously styled her baby hairs, a style she too wore. Another woman had a baby bump. The woman in black joined them, flashing a gummy smile.
“You look just like your mother,” she said.
“I don’t mean to be rude, but, is this a cult?” Philonia asked.
The women’s laughter settled her. She exhaled, glancing her mother on the other side of the store.
“This isn’t a cult,” said the one in black. She laughed some more as she poured herself a cup of coffee.
“It’s like mediation meets meditation circle.”
“Meets survivor group,” chimed the youngest one.
Philonia twisted her face and looked to Ava for confirmation. She felt set up by her mother who was preoccupied with her wallet.
“Lover’s betrayal is no joke,” said the woman in black. “Being here helps me deal with the fact that my ex-girlfriend cheated on me with her boss and now they’re buying a house.”
The sound of coins and keys clanging as Ava ruffled through her purse stole Philonia’s attention. Finally, Ava joined the group of women and handed an envelope to the pregnant one. “Count it before you leave.”
Philonia watched the woman hug Ava, but quickly looked away when Ava raised her forlorn face from the woman’s shoulder. She thought of her father skimming funds from the bakery and handing Yvonne envelopes full of cash whenever he’d meet her. Then she thought of the time her boyfriend had given her a few hundred dollars to treat herself to whatever she wanted. She got her hair braided and saved the rest.
“Shall we get started?
“Does anyone have an offering for the altar? Set down the thing closest to your current suffering.”
Like monks entering a monastery, the women filed toward the wooden table at the center of the store, where anything could have taken its place—a cash register, a stove, a condiment stand. Once each woman returned to her seat, Philonia saw that there was still space on the altar. She pitied its nakedness, its scratch marks deserving of adornment. So she dug into her shirt and pulled out the heart charm that her father gave her when she graduated high school. She slowly removed the jewelry from around her neck and placed it on the dented surface.
“The item that lay on the altar,” Ava started, “is merely a symbol of the burden that brought you here today and its destruction represents the erasure of that turmoil.” She exhaled. “In the same way that ash can be lifted from the earth, so will your burden.”
Philonia waded in an ocean of confusion. Her mother was onto something with her words, but she couldn’t fully grasp it in her hands. She felt guilty about that.
“What happens to the things on the altar?” she wondered aloud.
“Don’t worry, you can take back your things if you want to,” the pregnant woman said.
Philonia felt relief; she adored the charm, silver and heart-shaped with the letter P engraved in the center.
“Your burden is removable, just like the shoes on your feet,” Ava continued.
Her cadence had a hypnotic effect on Philonia. She told the women to be strong as she lifted the ends of her words and passed them over like plates to her daughter and the other women. Philonia had trouble believing she could follow Ava’s command, so instead she let the music of her mother’s words melt into her like a salve.
Ava lit a bundle of sage no bigger than her hand and waved it above the altar, the smoke snaking around her neck, forcing her eyes shut. The woman in black stood up from her seat and took the sage from Ava. She waved it over her own body and then passed it to the next woman, who passed it to the next woman, who passed it to Philonia.
“Do I do what you just did?”
“Follow your intuition,” Ava said. “Find it and follow.”
Philonia held the sage like a paintbrush, sending it up and down the length of her torso. She felt awkward and amateur, rushing through the motions and holding her breath.
“Here, I’ll take it.” The pregnant woman blew out the small fire and turned to the group. She spoke about preparing to raise a child alone after she thought her lover would leave his wife to be with her and his baby. Her baby’s father ghosted her soon after his wife found out that she was pregnant. The wife made him vow to never see his new family or she’d ruin his whole life and tell their kids. She thanked the group for helping her choose a name for the baby.
“Don’t you ever wonder about the wife?” Ava asked. “How do you think she’ll cope with what her kids don’t know?”
“At times I do,” the pregnant woman said, rubbing her baby bump. “But more often I find myself trying to figure out how to forgive myself before little Judge arrives.”
Would knowing the gritty details of her father’s infidelity have prevented Philonia from sleeping with a married man? Probably not. Their affair was not meant to last long enough for her to apply someone’s lessons learned to her own recklessness. She’d never spent more than 24 hours at a time with him; she liked the way he ignored large portions of his life just to experience a short escapade with her.
Philonia never heard her mother say the name of the woman who slept with her father. Though Philonia was unaware, she had adopted this no-naming practice from her mother. She almost never spoke the name of the man she was seeing. He was saved in her phone as Him. He, on the other hand, took joy in calling her name. Philly.
“She won’t bother you again,” he said. “Philly, don’t do this.”
“I can’t see you anymore.”
“Just once, to say goodbye. Philly, I need to see you once more.”
“You should have protected me. No one was supposed to find out.”
“Philly,” he whispered. “I never meant to hurt you.”
She listened to him breath and she took his silence to mean patience. He’d wait for her. The phone’s heat on her ear spread over her face and down her neck, past her chest and stomach, and radiated the parts of her body that smothered his whispers.
“Fine,” she said.
There were seven people on line to get devils pies when Philonia got back from the bank the morning after she attended Ava’s women’s group and the last time she saw Him. She walked behind the register and quickly put the money away, ready to take orders. Her “May I help you?” was interrupted when the woman she told to stay away dived over the counter, and again, grabbed Philonia by the collar. The rest happened quickly. Philonia felt two fiery smacks move across her face in rapid succession. She tried to wrestle the woman off of her, struggling to protect her face and to return blows. While the woman yelled, “stay out of our lives,” she piled punches onto Philonia’s back, driving her to the ground. Spread out woozy on the bakery tiles, Philonia thought of ashes and smoke. Then she saw two pairs of feet. Ava’s white orthopedic soles and the woman’s black leather boots skittered along the store tiles as people shouted for them to stop. Philonia clawed the counter to stand up and see her mother and her lover’s wife fighting like amateur boxers whose lives depended on that win. As she started to run over to help Ava, two men intervened. They pulled the woman off of Ava and carried her out of the store, her legs flailing and knocking into chairs and appalled customers.
“Are you OK, Ms. Ava?” A few customers formed a circle around her. Others tried to tend to Philonia, who refused attention. She rushed to her mother and tried to soothe her, but didn’t know which needed care first, the blood on her mother’s lip or the swelling in her right hand.
“How does your wrist feel?” Philonia asked, while wishing they were the only ones in the store so she could tell her mother that she was sorry for getting her involved.
“Yes, I’ll live,” Ava said. “I told you she’d be back.”
September sauntered in like it had been hiding cool air under her dress. Philonia decided to take a semester off and help her mother find a trustworthy, yet affordable bookkeeper. This gave her father ample time to plan elaborate evening walks. After the store would close, he’d take her through parts of the Bronx that she’d never seen before and he’d catch her up on his soaps.
“Did you think you were going to die?”
Skillman put both of his hands in the pockets of his khaki pants and jangled his keys. He led them toward a park bench, his eyes focused on his feet, and sat. His body hinged at the waist, knees, and elbows like a plastic doll.
“I know you know what I did,” he said. “Your mother told me you’ve been in some trouble of your own.”
“Do you still see Yvonne?” Her question flew out of her mouth and glided on the summer air, its cool rustle clean and absolute, like it would always stay that way even though it wouldn’t.
“Do you still talk to her?”
“No,” he said, crossing his legs at the ankles. “What more is there to say?”
Philonia thumbed the charm on her necklace and rose from the park bench. She looked down at him, wanting to answer, but beat back the urge, knowing that his question was rhetorical.
Philonia found a new wholesale sugar supplier that sold an organic brand that Ava really liked. She wanted to be a responsible shopper, so she checked to see if BJs sold it for less. They did.
Philonia loaded her cart with four bags of the new stuff and got in line to check out. She scanned the cashier’s faces to see if she could spot Yvonne. A young man wearing an “associate in training” pin said that Yvonne got promoted to store manager. After Philonia paid, she asked where she could find her.
“How can I help you today?” Yvonne asked, chin raised, voice full of exuberance. Yvonne wore the same blinged out blue eyeshadow that caught Philonia’s attention the day they met. She wore polyester slacks that fell straight to the soles of her work boots.
“Tell me you know her name.”