top of page

"Exchange Rates for City Babies and Border Girls" by Ra'Niqua Lee

Spring break meant a trip south of Atlanta to Georgia’s fat bottom. Ama’s grandparents lived in a house there with two bedrooms, a single bathroom, and a bucket outside for the desperately waiting. Some of the neighborhood boys took quiet advantage between rounds of touch football or throw-em-up-bust-em-up. The smell gave it away. Mixed piss jumbled the senses the same way that the smell of vinegar was almost a sound. Three times a week, Ama’s grandmother carried the bucket to the toilet, flushed its contents, and returned it to the porch.

Only just past the shy side of puberty and a city baby, Ama never saw people pee outdoors in Atlanta.

Maybe because exchange rates were strange along the Florida border, bottom Georgia, stranger even than the weather during hurricane season, Jefferson, one of those neighborhood boys, agreed to take her grandparents’ old ice box to the abandoned lot at the end of the road. No money required. The boy was thin as batted lashes but not quite as black. He hauled two hundred pounds of rusted metal, pausing between mailboxes to wipe sweat with his T-shirt. He pushed with arms and shoulders, dropped to one knee, laughed once, got back up, and pushed again. The humidity hovered somewhere between comfort and aggression. The metallic grate stopped, and Jefferson’s pants and huffs made a song of exhaustion.

Several spring breaks later, Ama kissed Jefferson sudden in the side yard gap between their houses. She’d spent her sixteenth year in Atlanta pint up under her momma’s Black-girl rules—stick close, work hard, stay away from boys. South of that, the only rules revolved around housekeeping, mopping floors, fixing the throw pillows just so, and cleaning out the bug zapper. After chores, Ama was free to do whatever, and whatever meant sneaking away into the blue green of not-yet-night and doubling up with Jefferson on his bike. Then down to the creek where they would lay out in the mossy grass and watch daylight forsake them.

“I love you, Jefferson Douglass,” Ama told him in the dark.

He laughed and said, “You don’t love me, girl. You only been here a week.”

“A week every year since I was a baby.”

“So what?” he asked. “You can’t pull love out of seven days.”

Ama hugged her arms, blinking at the darkness, trying to see the water. She had wanted him to tell her he loved her back. Love for love.

“Take me home,” she said.

As he was told, he pedaled her back up the hill to her grandparent’s house. Pop-pop waited under the porch light and blue zapper with a Coors light and a cane, still as a buzzard on a picket fence.

“Want me to shoot him?” Pop-pop asked when Jefferson was gone.

Ama wiped her face. “You too old for prison.”

He adjusted his grip on his cane.

“Nobody said anything about prison. I just asked if you wanted me to shoot him. Wouldn’t be the first time. Your momma was always running around here getting her heart broken by some bobble head boy. I kept a paintball gun close just in case. You been the spitting image of your momma since the day you were born. I knew I’d have to bring that gun out of retirement at some point. So I ask again, do you want me to shoot him?”

“No, not this time.”

The difference between bottom Georgia and Atlanta had to be the silence. No sirens. No traffic. Nighttime swallowed sound and forced Ama to lay with the freedom quiet of a musty quilt. Her mother had slept behind these very same walls, lived with these same rules. Rules that never quite seemed like rules. Repeating chores and keeping busy outdoors.

Jefferson came for Ama the day before she had to head back north to sound and city, early evening, just dark enough for the lightning bugs. New generation of neighborhood boys tossed pig skin in the street.

Ama opened the door, aimed, and fired. She left yellow stains all over Jefferson’s white T-shirt. He screamed like he thought she had ended him. The boys in the street laughed, and Jefferson left without offering up love, jokes, or goodbye.

As Jefferson raged down the sidewalk, Ama unloaded a final warning shot, a bright goodbye as she meant it. She got the hose from the side yard and shot steady streams at her own splatter before her grandmother could catch sight of it and make the sunny mess her own. Before her grandfather could see it and be proud. Before the paint dried up in the evening heat, a keep away warning for whoever might come for her next.

Ra'Niqua Lee writes to share her particular visions of love and the South. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cream City Review, Split Lip Magazine, Indiana Review, Passages North, and elsewhere. Every word is in honor of her little sister, Nesha, who battled schizoaffective disorder until the very end. For her always.


bottom of page