The thump rocked the concrete walls of Helene’s grocery shop, unleashing echoes from her years living at Prospect Manor, a low-income apartment complex in Oakland, California. There, youths had haunted the basketball grounds at all hours, seemingly drawing energy from dribbles on the cracked asphalt, which harbored in its crevices ancient gum and cigarette butts. Over time, the sound of bouncing basketballs had lodged itself in Helene’s mind, squatting beside static TV noise from the neighbor in 3A. But today, in Pittsburg, forty miles away from Prospect Manor, this basketball had slammed against the wall separating Helene’s small business from the adjacent property. Somebody wanted her financial ruin.
With the prudence of one approaching the epicenter of an earthquake, she tiptoed into the shop’s storage room and toward the source of the noise. Her right hand met the wall’s textured surface, and she held her breath for the ball’s next onslaught. At the impact, vibrations penetrated her palm before melting into the indignation swelling within her.
“Just like that, you’ll let them ruin your life’s work?” The Laugh, the one with the razor-sharp tongue, said. The voice exploded into one of those cackles that made Helene’s head swell like a sponge under a downpour. She did not argue with The Laugh, for doing so always precipitated her into a bottomless well.
“Call the police,” The Laugh whispered, hot breath ringing near her eardrum. “Two weeks your store’s been open, and they’re already disrespecting you. Imagine what could happen, what the Pittsburg Times would publish: ‘Building Collapses over Black Woman and Her Customers.’”
Helene clutched the base of her neck, panting. The Laugh was right. She and her husband, MassaMo, had snapped up the 400-square-foot shop at an enviable price. The storefront of their African convenience market now greeted Laguna Avenue, one of the primary commercial arteries of Pittsburg, and had already attracted a respectable number of customers.
“You see, they must be jealous,” The Laugh said. “But you’ve worked all your life for this.”
“For sure,” Helene said, nodding. She and MassaMo had invested all their savings in the store, the fruits of twenty-five years of janitorial work for her and taxi-driving for him. Capitalizing on the dearth of African grocery stores outside Oakland, the couple had migrated to the Bay Area’s eastern suburbs along with other Black families seeking affordable housing. This shop was it, do or die. It was the legacy they would bestow upon their two children and six grandchildren. And somebody wanted to destroy it all.
She pummeled her right fist against her left palm, considering what to do. Even though The Laugh advised so, calling the police was an extreme measure she could not embrace. Her fear of uniformed authority figures had sprouted in her home country of Cameroon but had burgeoned in America’s fertile soil. Here, she had learned that to thrive, she had to make herself small, unobtrusive.
“Why don’t you go talk to them?” God-Does-Not-Sleep said in the placid tone that always reined in the thrum of blood throughout her body.
She smiled, heartened by the sage’s advice. It was what her now-deceased mother would have told her: “If smoke from your neighbor’s kitchen is making you cough, knock on her door and tell her so, instead of badmouthing her at the market square.” But as the newcomer in the neighborhood, first Helene needed to gather information, for she would not intrude upon someone’s domain without basic information about the owner. This too she had learned in America: if you looked a certain way, you must never tempt fate.
That evening, MassaMo arrived to help close down the shop, wearing the toll of the day’s labor in his socks and trouble from his riders within the grooves of his face. While Helene stashed in covered plastic bins all the food items that might entice mice into the building, he flopped down into a folding chair, Guinness in hand and bare feet on a wooden stool. She recounted the day’s tales, chagrined that in the stillness of the evening, troubled only by faint chatter from the nearby barbershop, he might not grasp just how serious the infraction to their property and the attack against her life had been.
“Eh eh, are you sure that you heard correctly?” MassaMo said, caressing the beer bottle. “Who would do something like that?”
“Did you hear anybody talking?”
She paused and recalled what had filtered through the concrete wall. “No. Just the ball, knocking over and over again, as loud as the iron ball they used to tear down that building opposite the old apartment.”
His eyebrows formed circumflexes. “A wrecking ball?”
He pinched his mouth as if to prevent more words from spilling out. Regrettable words. But the shake of his head gave away his skepticism, his duplicity. “You should go to bed early tonight. You’ve been working too hard for the last few weeks.”
For the rest of the evening, she barricaded herself within a silence full of rancor. Yet again, he’d failed her, and it would be up to her to protect their investment and her own life.
The next day, Helene sat in the doorway between the back room and the main floor, one ear tuned to the little bell that clanged upon a customer’s entrance. The yellow plantains with leopard spots needed sorting, and the scanty shelves in a corner past all three aisles begged for more ziplocked packages of yucca flour. Yet she remained seated, her fingers journeying over the beads of a rosary while she waited. Even when the chest freezer behind the counter resumed its humming, and she remembered that a frozen block of mackerel needed to be apportioned into single-fish bags, she didn’t budge. And then, around noon, the walls trembled, rewarding her patience. Heart thudding, she captured the ear-shattering noise using her phone, all twenty-one minutes of the frightful event. Throughout the afternoon, she replayed the recording several times, each repetition inflaming her. MassaMo would no longer have any doubt. But just to be safe, somebody else needed to listen to the tape first, witness through the magic of technology what she had experienced firsthand.
She huffed with relief when the next customer who crossed the threshold turned out to be a stranger—better he than one of the regulars who also went to her church. Rehearsing mentally how she would formulate her request, she tore up pages from old issues of the Pittsburg Times and wrapped up his order of stewing chicken, goat meat, and cow skin. She then gave him his receipt before holding her open phone before him.
“My brother, would you please do me a favor?”
“Yes, of course. What is it?”
“Listen to this recording and tell me what you hear.”
Surprise fleeted over his face, but he bowed his head slightly, frowning with attention. “I’m ready.”
She pressed the button with a shaky hand. The intermittent sound of the basketball began, grainy and fuzzy as it had been in her Prospect Manor apartment on those evenings when the neighbor’s TV had been turned up too high. Neck muscles knotted, she scrutinized the customer’s face for additional ridges in his forehead or deepening lines at the corner of his eyes.
“You hear that?” she said when the wait became unbearable.
He brought his ear closer to the phone, each incremental second of his silence turning her insides to corn porridge.
At last, he nodded, fingers gripping the plastic bag holding his groceries. “There’s definitely something there, la mère.”
What thing? she dared not ask.
When he bade her goodbye, the pity in his eyes filled her with shame. His dubious “yes” stirred up fear that lurked at the bottom of her person, waiting for the right accelerant. She swiped the fated recording into her phone’s trash bin, hopeful that its disappearance would erase the man’s unconvincing “yes” and its implications.
Throughout the weekend, she ruminated over the sound of the basketball, the respective suggestions that The Laugh and God-Does-Not-Sleep had made, and the customer’s questioning glance when she’d prompted him to listen with more intent.
By Monday noontime, she had made a decision. Later, when the ball contacted the building again, she pounded the wall with the fleshy part of her right fist. The person on the other side went silent and then, after a few seconds, restarted the twisted play. She responded in kind, and before long, they had adopted a cadence—ball–fist, ball–fist. Ribbons of anger swirled around her. With pain enveloping her hand, she bellowed her frustration: “What do you want?”
Quiet responded, heavy, discordant, and insufficient to satisfy her desire for answers. Determined to find the culprit behind her troubles, she flipped the sign on the door to CLOSED and locked the store’s front entrance. She hurried past the barbershop and the nail salon.
Her temerity lost some wind when she reached the house that sheltered the wrongdoer.
“Don’t pee in your underpants, now,” The Laugh said with a sneer.
She had never set foot onto private property without an explicit invitation. Did these people have a dog that would tear up her calf like a leg of lamb? What if the owners waved a gun in her face?
“You know what your favorite newspaper will say if you mess up,” The Laugh said. “‘Old Crazy Black Woman Tries to Rob Neighbor in Plain Daylight.’ They’ll accuse you of being drugged up.”
“Nothing bad will happen, as long as you’re nice and smile a lot,” God-Does-Not-Sleep said.
The reassurance sustained her up a flight of cracked concrete stairs and onto a porch that shed flakes of floor paint. She pressed the doorbell button and waited, anxiety welling up inside her. The front lawn, a carpet of yellow grass and mud-brown burrows, displayed decline unusual for the month of April.
Helene shuddered and pressed the button with more insistence. A shadow darkened the curtain in the front bay window and then retreated. Helene held her breath, hands clutched together on her bosom and mind stumbling over plausible lies she might tell to justify her presence on the porch.
The door opened suddenly, but just enough for Helene to glimpse the outline of a white woman with hay-colored hair.
“Yes?” the woman said, exhaling the smell of cigarettes into the air.
Helene’s courage collapsed, and her tongue parted from the roof of her mouth with difficulty. “Good d-d-day, Madam. Excuse me for bothering you, but . . . ”
Her half-sentence floundered like a disoriented object in flight. She could neither pull it back nor deliver it in its entirety to the intended recipient.
The woman opened the door wider and stood between the wooden panel and the doorjamb. Her reddened eyes, the only color in an otherwise pale face, questioned Helene.
“I was just coming to ask . . . if maybe you heard something . . . a knock against my wall.”
The stranger lowered her head and cupped her face, shoulders trembling. A wounded cry rose from her.
Helene rushed down the front steps, coils of fear unspooling inside her. The last thing she needed was to be caught unwanted at the doorstep of a wailing white woman.
The crier emerged from behind the front door and brought together the belt of her tattered flowery robe. “Wait!”
“Keep running!” The Laugh urged.
“I tell you, it’ll be fine,” God-Does-Not-Sleep said, tension leaking from his voice. “Say nice words and smile.” Helene froze, panic rushing through her alert limbs.
The blonde sat at the edge of the veranda and raked her fingers through her hair, lifting and releasing the strands. “My son . . . He used to play ball in the yard. He’d come here for a few weeks every summer to stay with me.”
Helene forced the grimace on her face to blossom into a smile and approached the woman. Maybe a few minutes talking to one of her tormentors might help save her life and her investment. “So your son has started playing ball again, then?”
The stranger shook her head and covered her mouth for a moment, eyes welling up with tears. “No, he’s gone.”
A chill coursed through Helene. “He has traveled,” she said with stubbornness, pushing away the other possible significance of the woman’s declaration. The child couldn’t be dead. She’d heard the sound of his ball and felt the walls quake. What kind of mother lied that her own son had died?
The woman stood up, a strange kind of determination lighting up her face. She extended her hands toward Helene, who took a step back.
“Please, I want to hear it too, that sound. It must be my Jonah, calling for help.”
Helene hurried toward the street. The stranger had something missing up there. On the sidewalk, she looked over her shoulder. The white woman stood in the middle of the gravel path that led to the front steps, face slack in an imploring expression.
Wracked by guilt, Helene stopped. She knew the hurt and isolation of being disbelieved, of receiving pity when all one wanted was trust. Maybe she could grant this grieving mother a wish, even though it was an outlandish one. And God forbid that something supernatural had taken up near her store. It would be many times worse than an annoying ball bouncing against the wall.
She retraced her steps and stood before the woman, who appeared even more battered than earlier. Tears had pushed out some crust to the corner of her eyes, and her pallor had yielded to redness.
Helene glanced at the yard’s tall hedges, which matched the height of the partition wall with her store. The truth lay beyond those evergreen leaves, and she would get to it.
“Let it be clear that I’m Christian,” she said, “and don’t believe in spirits. I’ll let you come to the store and listen, once. Maybe you could tell him to find another playground.”
The next day at a quarter to noon, Helene placed two chairs against the store’s counter. Questions swarmed in her mind. Would it be better if she and the woman faced each other or sat side by side? Would the smell of dried fish and smoked meat that permeated the shop be offputting? After all, the woman would be the first white person ever to enter the store, let alone the storage room in which the smell of foodstuffs was even more intense.
Someone knocked at the door. It was a white woman wearing large sunglasses that covered most of her face. She took them off, and Helene recognized her immediately as the mother from the previous day. Today, new life seemed to inhabit her. She had washed her strawlike hair and cut it to shoulder length, and her lips bore bright red lipstick.
“Hello, hello!” she said with a broad smile before glancing around the room. “My name is Sheila. What a nice place you have here! What from among these foods can I cook? I need to get some groceries to try something new.”
She paced down one of the aisles and picked up a can of palm oil.
“There are a few easy dishes you could try. I sell steaks.”
“No, I want something authentic,” Sheila said, waving her hand.
Helene retrieved two Fanta bottles from the refrigerator and placed them on the counter. She was unsure why the woman was happy, given that they’d met to witness a terrible thing.
“How about we settle on what you might cook after we hear the sounds? Please, help yourself to some Fanta.”
They sat down side by side, each one drinking from her bottle.
“At what time does he usually come?” Sheila whispered.
Helene succeeded in hiding her annoyance. She refused to believe in something supernatural. There had to be another explanation.
The next thirty minutes elapsed in uncomfortable silence interrupted intermittently by morsels of information from one or the other woman. Helene gave an abbreviated version of her life story, the courtship and marriage to MassaMo in Cameroon, and then the transition to the United States. Sheila’s past was simpler. Born in Alameda County, she had lived there all her life before relocating to Pittsburg after her divorce.
“My ex moved to Nevada, I stayed here near family. Do you know what I regret most?”
“Not fighting for my son’s custody.”
The son who’d died and whom they both now awaited. Helene lowered her gaze, and a tidal wave rose within her, ushering in a sentiment she loathed from others: pity. Sheila was a grieving woman who sought comfort in delusions. There was no ghost of her son. Helene stood confident in what she’d heard: a living person had thrown that ball against her shop’s building. Sheila knew who.
“I don’t think anything will happen today,” Helene said after forty-five minutes. She indicated a few items Sheila could cook at home—plantains, steaks, smoked turkey—and they parted.
After waiting several minutes to ensure that Sheila had left the building’s surroundings, Helene knocked at the barbershop’s door. She had set foot inside the business only once before, to introduce herself as the new neighbor.
He swiveled in his chair and rose, hand extended. “What’s up, Ma’am? How are things?”
She explained that she had found a defect in the wall she shared with the next-door property, and needed to speak with the house owner.
“Sorry to say, Ma’am, but those people are dead. Old man and his wife, they died in a car crash. Their house’s been empty since then. They were nice people, too.”
Helene’s mouth dried up. “How long ago was that?”
“Going on almost two years now. A real tragedy. For the wall, you’re better off speaking with Mr. Nico. I don’t know what’s in your contract, but he might need to pay for the repairs since you’re so new here.”
Head buzzing, Helene nodded. She couldn’t reconcile the woman who’d just left her store and the story Paco had told. “Did you see the white woman who was at my shop a few minutes ago?”
“The one with the sunglasses? Yeah. My last customer was leaving and I was sweeping the floor when she went past. What about her?”
“Be careful!” The Laugh said. “Maybe he’s lying about the house owners being dead.”
“Why would he lie?” God-Does-Not-Sleep objected.
“I was just wondering,” Helene said. “Thank you. I need to get back now.”
For the next hour, she sat with her phone in hand, contemplating whether to dial the dreaded number. Try as she might, she could not think of anyone else to whom to report harassment by someone squatting in an unoccupied house.
“Nine-one-one. What’s your emergency?”
She hung up. If police came to her shop, if their cars’ red, white, and blue lights danced against the building’s walls, business would be ruined not only for her but also for her neighbors. They, too, would begin resenting her. No, she needed to do this differently.
The sketch artist knitted his brows. He glanced at the sheet of paper and then at Helene. She shrank in the metal chair she occupied, and goosebumps sprouted over her arms. Until today, she had never been inside a police station. Although she was innocent, she was arrested by fear.
A policeman opened the door to the little room where she had spent the last two hours describing the smallest details of Sheila’s face. He sat beside the artist and folded his broad arms over his chest, covering up his badge number. Erickson was the name he’d given her earlier. His green eyes did not bear the accusatory stare she’d imagined. No. Instead, his face contained the same pity the customer had displayed at the store a few days ago.
“We’ve contacted your husband. We’ll release you into his care as soon as he arrives,” he said.
“But that woman . . . she lied and must be hiding something. If they keep knocking against my wall, the building could crumble. I don’t want to die buried alive.”
“Ma’am, even if what you’ve told us is true, a basketball cannot cause the collapse of a building. You are safe.”
“No, I’m not. You have to send someone to look through that house!”
“That would require real evidence. What you’ve told us isn’t it.” He motioned to the artist, who flipped through a copy of the Pittsburg Times, stopping at a page with an image of a woman.
“See,” the policeman said, pointing at the picture. “That image has been in the newspaper for a couple of weeks. The woman kidnapped her own child and took off with him. We’ve looked for them at all of her relatives’ and friends’ houses. Do you read the Pittsburg Times?”
She shook her head. Older issues served as wrapping paper at the store, but she never had the time to read through them.
“But have you ever seen this picture before?”
The sketch resembled what the artist had just drawn based on Helene’s description, but it showed the version of Sheila that Helene had seen at the house: bloodshot eyes and stringy long hair.
“This is what she looked like when I went to her house. But the next day, she’d changed her hairstyle.”
There was a slight rap on the door. Erickson stood up. “Your husband is here. You’re free to go now.”
Embarrassment darkened MassaMo’s face, and for that reason, she did not protest when they left the police station and drove back to the store.
He opened the front door and flipped the sign to CLOSED. “We’ve lost one afternoon of business,” he said. “I could decrease my taxi hours. Afternoons between lunchtime and four p.m. are slow anyway.”
It was an attempt to help, so Helene did not tell him that those hours were also the slowest at the store. Maybe he had been right all along, and all she needed was more rest. Yes, if he minded the store in the afternoons, she would lie on a cot in the storage room and drift into a fitful sleep, and maybe, over time, The Laugh and God-Does-Not-Sleep would sleep as well.
She switched on the light in the small room and examined the wall where it had all started. And then she saw them, the two bottles of Fanta she had placed on the floor beside the blue recycling bin. One had been Helene’s, and the other had bright red lipstick at the mouth.
Her heart lurched in her chest. The can of palm oil Sheila had held in the store probably had her fingerprints, too. She felt in her jeans pocket for the card Erickson had given her like a piece of candy to a clingy child.
“You were right,” God-Does-Not-Sleep said. “Call him.”
“You’ll make a fool of yourself again,” The Laugh mocked. “Turn the page.”
She dialed the number with trembling hands. “May I speak with Inspector Erickson, please? I have some evidence regarding a child kidnapping.”
An hour later, Helene returned to the stranger’s porch, trailing Erickson. At least six police cars crowded the narrow street, and garbled walkie-talkie conversations peppered the moonless evening. Two policemen wielded a battering ram, and another initiated a countdown. Helene covered her ears and halted her breathing. Still, the door’s thunderous crack plunged into the depths of her mind, unleashing doubt: there would be a reckoning if she’d been wrong.
After police had searched the house, and declared it vacant, Helene set foot inside. Neither the nicotine-soaked air, nor the fast-food wrappings that crinkled under her shoes, halted her march toward the wall.
Shadows shrouded the backyard. Still, Helene’s gaze scoured the play area, lingered near the partition with her store, and split up the darkness until her eyes accommodated. A lightbulb came to life, casting a feverish stream of light upon the courtyard. It was then that Helene saw the ball, a kaleidoscopic beacon that seemed to emit vibrations in the dark. The once-thought-as-offensive object was just as she had imagined it would be: brash and unapologetic, even in its appearance. Yet it was now a wondrous sight, another object that proved her foothold in reality. Her knees threatened to give way, and for the first time in two weeks, the voices granted her a respite.
“Up here!” someone shouted from a room in the house.
The next few hours filed past her in a blur of questions and recommendations. The police had found fistfuls of Sheila’s blonde strands in one of the rooms, and the fingerprints that marred most of the house’s surfaces matched the set they had in their files for the suspected kidnapper, Marla Carlson.
“I’m going to need you to sit down with that sketch artist again,” Erickson said.
When Helene returned home that evening, a gleam of respect danced in MassaMo’s eyes.
“If you aren’t a kind of hero now . . .” he said.
She shook her head. Though the voices had departed, they would return with a vengeance if Marla Carlson and her son were never found. And Helene suspected the police would begin prodding her account again, maybe even moving her from willing witness to potential participant in a foul scheme.
Two days later, police arrested the stranger at a retail store in Oakley, ten miles north of Pittsburg. She had just purchased a multicolor basketball.