Risa Eldengrah and the BT.com Adventure

Sullen and sarcastic, mean and maybe a little spiteful, Risa Eldengrah’s legend around here. Risa’s black, which means storytellers must describe her skin in terms of food, and the most accurate description of Risa’s complexion is it’s the color of Charmaine Brooks’ fabulous fudge chocolate cake made with 2 1/2 cups of packed brown sugar, three eggs, and three squares of unsweetened chocolate (melted), baked at a temperature of 350 degrees for exactly thirty­five minutes. If you miss an egg or bake for too long, you won’t have Risa’s skin tone, but that of another black girl, one too light or too dark for this story, and that’s no small matter—everything about Risa is as precise as that recipe.

But this story, despite its title and its first paragraph, is not about Risa. Rather it’s the tale of her elderly neighbor, Mr. Calkins, and his popular website, BT.com, and how it predicted the future even when he didn’t want it to.

Calkins is white, which means his skin is also sometimes described in food (the creamy frosting of a wedding cake, the hollow coolness of a glass of milk) or in terms of nature (the moon, of course, or maybe the tender flakes of a new snow), and while these descriptions would be close to the mark, the best approximation of Calkins’ skin tone is that of paint, frostine (AF­5), a shade of white that makes all the other white hues nervous, given the way its “icy blue­green undertone gave the wintery white its cool cast.”

The lives of the wintery­white Calkins and the fudge­chocolate Risa intersected one day at the local McDonald’s. Calkins sipped a coffee, and as its heat blistered his fingers, he pondered the best way to fight his hackers.

So far, they’d hacked his website four times this year, that he could count. And while BT.com was known for providing solid information about the happenings around our town, lately the website contained plenty of information about just one citizen—Calkins. At least once a month, the homepage would “refresh” itself with an embarrassing tidbit about Calkins. Just the other day, the website’s lead story: “Calkins, long­time editor of this website, will be seen on Monday morning walking around town square with just his underwear on.” Calkins, who minutes before had penned a tidy service story about avoiding a new dangerous street gang, was unprepared when his phone started ringing off the hook.

“Why,” his mother wondered, “are you planning on walking around in your underwear? I’m certain I raised you better than that!”

Kid, an aspiring young writer, called next. “Hey man,” Kid said. “What’s going on with you? You’re into some strange shit now. What’s with the underwear? You going through an exhibitionist phase now or what?”

Confused, Calkins stumbled over to his ancient desktop, which chopped the air with loud grinding noises. On the website, he saw his picture. Below it, the story about his plans for Monday, which happened to be the next day. How ridiculous—I’d never do something so foolish. I won’t even wear underwear tomorrow. I’ll go commando!

But the prospect of not slipping a cool, silky layer between his behind and his new Corduroys was too much to bare. So, he put on his silky briefs anyway, let them fight his pant’s roughness, and was confident because he was taking the bus north, away from town square, and all would have worked out perfectly except the bus broke down, in the middle of town square, and as Calkins walked to the mechanic to get a part for the driver, a rare and mighty gust of wind ripped his pants off, making the BT.com’s earlier prediction complete.

Calkins contemplated that embarrassment, and the BT.com’s dozens of other humiliations, as Risa Eldengrah stormed past a giant plastic Ronald McDonald and a Happy Meal­eating kid wearing a “no one likes you” t­shirt. And the full force, the all­encompassing anger of Risa’s chocolate cake­colored face aimed directly at him, nearly made Calkins drop his coffee in his lap.

“Motherfucker! Why’d you have to go and get me pregnant?” Risa’s shout made the other restaurant-goers stop chewing their hamburgers.

“You’re in the family way?” It took a few seconds for Calkins to process what Risa was saying, during which time she’d lifted her blue shirt, exposing a round, brown belly that was considerably lighter than her face; it was the color, maybe, of the caramel molasses cookies on the “Sally’s Baking Addiction” website. “I’m sorry, Miss, but I can’t see how I’ve got anything to do with it.”

“It’s all up on BT.com,” Risa said, but the fire left her voice. She’d exposed him and exposed herself, and for the minute that was all she needed. She sat down on the chair across from Calkins—maybe across isn’t the right word, the tables were so small they were catty­cornered—and stared at Calkins through sleepy, half­closed eyes.

“The website?” Calkins wondered, but he knew that if what Risa was saying was true, that if her pregnancy had been announced on the homepage of BT.com, then the hackers must have named him as the father.

“Yes, motherfucker. The website. Your website.” Risa grabbed his hand, placed it on her exposed belly, and Calkins first felt, then saw, the outline of a small black scorpion, its scaly black body clear against the soft brown of Risa’s skin. “You see that—it’s not even human!”

Calkins felt a rush of sympathy for Risa. No wonder she was angry: the poor girl was about to give birth to something she couldn’t even nurse. It was true that scorpions were hardy, survival­centered animals and wouldn’t need a lot of mothering—he’d read that in National Geographic—but still. Scorpions had faces not even a mother could love.

“I expect you to pay child support,” Risa continued. “Take care of your responsibility. I go to bed last night, minding my own business, and then I wake up this morning, pregnant with your little scorpion-child.”

“Won’t be a problem,” Calkins said, now a little angry that Risa could ever think he’d be an irresponsible father. “I make more than enough to feed it. Scorpions can live on one meal a year.” He’d read that in National Geographic too, the online version. Calkins didn’t like it, this online version of his favorite magazine. More accurately, Calkins didn’t like the online version of anything. He’d been a news editor during a time when information meant something. Calkins had been able to tell readers when a new boy (or girl) had arrived in town, when local church services would be held. And he’d reported, with compassion, on some of the town’s most important crimes. There was nothing about the Bellona Times that was false—Calkins was sure of it. But the BT.com, like online information everywhere, consisted of constant change and updates. Calkins didn’t trust it, and his current hackers were only a small part of the problem. He longed for the days when he could read newspapers and books with pages that he could turn. He hated web pages that had to be scrolled through, linked to, downloaded. In the old days, you found the facts, then reported the story; nowadays, you reported the story, and then made the facts fit your narrative.

“Somebody get a doctor! It’s coming, it’s coming—I feel it. It’s coming.” Risa’s voice sounded like a car accident. More intense than her earlier shouts, her moans vibrated like crashing metals.

“I’m not a doctor, but I’ve got a SmartPhone,” a woman put down her filet­o­fish and walked over to Risa and Calkins. “Looks like you’re going to be okay.” She smiled sympathetically while other onlookers roamed past with their Big Macs and hot apple pies.

“How do you know? ‘Cause it feels like this thing is trying to claw its way outta me.”

The woman held her phone in front of Risa and Calkins and showed them BT.com, which she’d just downloaded. The top story was about Risa and Calkins’ magical scorpion love­child; the headline read: Risa Eldengrah, Twenty, Gives Birth in Local McDonald’s.

Calkins relaxed for a second until he scanned through the story and realized that he was to be the one to deliver the baby. He panicked until he read the lede paragraph. The lede explained how Calkin calmly checked to make sure Risa’s cervix was dilated, and then when her contractions were less than two minutes apart, encouraged her to push. The story named Risa as “a real trooper” and praised her ability to continue to push even as the baby scorpion’s eight tiny legs and hard, whip­like tail made her contractions that much more painful.

But the story ended there, abruptly. It didn’t say anything about how Calkins was supposed to feel about his child, the hard, black shiny thing he held in his arms. He stared at it, and its seven eyes stared back at him, gave him a look of pure blurry (Calkins’d read on Scorpionworlds.com that despite their many eyes, scorpions couldn’t see well and “were extremely sensitive to light”) innocence.

But could he love it? Could he love this ugly, bizarre­looking thing that he hadn’t been expecting, that had just happened into his life like a thousand of other changes in this strange, constantly changing world?

And then he decided he could. The little baby scorpion, the chocolate­and­caramel Risa—they were both a part of his life now, however they’d come into it. He gently kissed his baby’s exoskeleton, wrapped it in a half dozen hamburger wrappers before placing it lightly on Risa’s abdomen. Then he kissed her forehead, and went into the restroom to wash his hands. It was time, Calkins decided, to take out his laptop and update his story. He wanted a happy ending and felt he’d earned it, most especially on a day like today, when he didn’t know who had authored his story, when it was hard to tell, exactly, who wrote what.


Rochelle is co-editor of All About Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color (Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 2015), and her work appears in Poets and Writers, Callaloo, the Women’s Review of BooksCrab Creek Review, Mosaic, the Ascentos Review, the African American Review, and other journals. A Pushcart Prize nominee, she is the African American Museum and Library of Oakland’s current Writer-in-Residence, a program spearheaded by Museum Coordinator Ms. Veda Silva

4 responses

  1. So glad to see this story published. The original story includes hyperlinks to Internet content:
    Charmaine Brooks’ famous fudge cake (http://allrecipes.com/recipe/7269/fabulous-fudge-chocolate-cake/); Benjamin Moore’s paint (http://www.benjaminmoore.com/en-us/paint-color/frostine); Sally’s Baking addiction’s Caramel Molasses Cookies (http://sallysbakingaddiction.com/2013/11/26/caramel-molasses-cookies/); National Geographic (http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/bugs/scorpion/), Scorpionworlds.com, and Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dhalgren).

    Thanks for reading!

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