A taste of Orange Mint and Honey

Chapter 1: What Would Nina Simone Do?

I should have known things were getting bad when Nina Simone showed up. Don't get me wrong. I love Nina. I've been listening to her since History of Jazz sophomore year. The professor taught us to worship the great men of jazz, but it was the women who drew me in: Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Dinah Washington, Bessie Smith, Mildred Bailey. They were queens, priestesses, goddesses—encouraging me, pointing me away from danger, schooling me in the ways of life. Especially Nina Simone.

I listened to Nina Simone a thousand times, and I always got something from her music. But the night she came to me for the first time she must have known I needed more than a song could offer. I knew a famous singer, and a dead one at that, shouldn't have been in my bedroom, but somehow I wasn't surprised to see her because I had been wishing she were there. Wishing she would tell me what to do.

Usually when I was down I could keep going. But this time I bumped up against something that I couldn't get over, a wall as hard and cold and impossible to see through as frosted glass. I had lost my job writing grant proposals for an indigent-care clinic, stopped going to class, and received an eviction notice from my landlord. But still all I could do was listen to music, hanging on to the life preserver of Nina Simone's eerie, regal voice.

That night, I was listening to the fast version of “House of the Rising Sun.” It’s a live recording, seven minutes long. Nina gets so into it, you can’t make out what she’s singing. Behind her, the band chants “rising sun,” “rising sun” over and over, and the audience claps to the fast beat. The piano, the clapping hands, and tambourine sound like church and juke joints, like sweat and heat, free and alive. I started dancing. I hadn’t had the energy to get out of my pajamas for a week, but “House of the Rising Sun” had me shaking my head back and forth, twirling in circles, and pumping my arms and legs up and
down like I was performing a tribal ritual, like I was one of Alvin Ailey’s dancers. I danced through the song three times until all thoughts of jobs and grad school and unpaid bills were erased from my mind and I could sleep.

At 3:33 a.m. I opened my eyes and Nina Simone was there, as if I had conjured her, standing in front of my bedroom window, blue moonlight spotlighting her features — thick lips, proud nose, slanted eyes rimmed in kohl like Cleopatra’s. I had been asking myself for days WWNSD (What would Nina Simone do?) and now she had come to tell me. I didn’t know if she was a ghost or a hallucination, and I didn’t care. Eyes wide, heart thumping like the speakers in the car of a teenaged boy, I sat up and waited for Nina Simone to say something wise, to tell me how to fix the mess I’d made of my life, to comfort me, and convince me that I had inside me everything I needed to move forward.

“You’ve really screwed up now,” she said.


“You heard me.”

That’s how low I had sunk. Even the spirits of the dead or my own daydreams were turning on me. “I thought you were going to offer me some advice!”

“You’re a grown woman. Why should I tell you what to do?”

It sounded bad when she said it. But I was tired. Tired of always having to figure things out, tired of always having to do everything myself. I’d been taking care of myself since I was seven years old. So for someone else to tell me what to do was exactly what I wanted. For once in my life, I wanted someone else to carry the load. “Because I need help!” I shouted. They were words I had never said before. But then again Nina Simone had never been in my apartment before. It was a night of firsts.

”You got that right,” she said taking in the mounds of dirty clothes, used Kleenexes, heaps of junk mail, textbooks, CDs, notebooks, and milk-crusted cereal bowls and teacups.

“What I need is…is just a break. A rest. A time out.”

Just the week before, Carl, my advisor, had convinced me that was what I needed. Actually, he had “strongly suggested” that I take a year off.
“No!” I had yelled, the most intense emotion I had shown in forever. As exhausted and sick of everything as I was I couldn’t just drop out. I couldn’t be away from school for an entire year.

He stared at me, even more worried.

“I mean, I can’t fall that far behind. I can take a semester off. You’re right, a semester off will do me some good.”

“OK,” he said, relief washing over his face.

I guess since that M.I.T. student set herself on fire a few years ago even after visiting the mental health service the plan was to get depressed college students off campus ASAP. Let them be someone else’s lawsuit in the making.

“What will you do with your time off?”

“I have no idea.” What did people do with time off? I had never taken a day off in my life. If I didn’t have to work, I still had papers to write or tests to study for. Even during the summers, I took at least one class or put in extra hours at work. I’d never even skipped school before now. Playing hooky was something that bad kids, going-to-end-up-just-like-their-parents kids did.

“What about your family? Friends? Don’t you have anybody who can help?”

You would think that since I was sitting in front of him in dirty, rumpled clothes and a bandana on my head looking like “Who shot John,” as my old hairdresser Belinda used to say, he would know the answer to that question.

Of course, being an academic, he wasn’t much better dressed. Like me he had on the requisite khakis and button-down shirt. We would have been twins except his clothes probably didn’t come straight out of the hamper. He still thought I was like all his other students who got care packages, plane tickets, and checks from home. But all I ever got from Nona were postcards from her new, allegedly sober life. And friends? The last good friend I had was in high school. Stephanie was still back in Denver. I hadn’t spoken to her since we graduated.
“I’ll be fine,” I said.

“I don’t know what’s going on, but you might want to see someone. You know? A professional. I want you to come back ready to finish your thesis.”

My thesis was just one of many things that had stalled. I nodded, exhausted. All I wanted to do was go back home and turn on my music.

“Let’s touch base in a month or so. Send me an email, let me know how you’re doing?”

“I’ll be fine,” I had repeated.

Though clearly I was far from fine. Things had only gotten worse. I had been “resting” for a week now, and look what happened: a dead woman was sitting in my bedroom talking to me.

“Go home, Shay,” Nina Simone said.

She knew my name.

“You need to go home,” she repeated.

She must have read my mind, which shouldn't have been too hard considering there was a good chance she was being generated from the same place. But like Carl, she didn’t understand.

The last time I saw Nona I was in my junior year in college. She came to Iowa City when she reached the step where they make you apologize. She was very pregnant, and I couldn’t believe how ugly she was. Her face was all broken out and she must have gained fifty, sixty, pounds. Not just in her breasts and stomach, but in her face, arms, hands, back, butt, and thighs. The bags under her eyes were puffed up like potstickers. Even her feet were fat.

When I saw her, saw how heavy and zitty she was, I was almost happy she had come. I kept my eyes on her bloated feet the whole time she read her apology. Her voice shook. I don’t remember exactly what she said. Something about being sorry she let me down, sorry I learned I couldn’t trust her. But I remember her saying something about us “being mother and daughter again” and even though I was looking down at her feet, I saw her rest her hand on her stomach when she said the word mother.

That was too much. Acting like her pregnancy was a good thing, not a horrible, stupid mistake. I had actually been hopeful when she told me she was going to AA. For the first few months, I thought, wow, she’s really going to do it this time. Stupid me, I actually let myself believe her. Then she got pregnant. Knocked up by a guy she met in AA, who promptly left her high and dry just like my own father did, and there she was expecting me to believe that things were different. She couldn’t even do AA without going off with some guy! She was thirty-six years old and she had never heard of birth control? Never heard of AIDS or Chlamydia or herpes?
She told me she hoped I would give her another chance. I think she wanted me to shout, “I forgive you!” and throw myself into her arms. But I just stared at her feet, at the flesh rising like bread dough over the straps of her red sandals.

Nina Simone gingerly toed a pair of jeans out of her way, revealing the panties I had worn with them weeks ago tangled up inside, and walked toward me. I hoped she didn’t get too close. It had been a while since I had seen soap and water. I was cloaked in a cloud of funk toxic enough to re-kill a dead woman.
She sat on the foot of my bed. “You could rest. Let your mother take care of you.”

I snorted. “That’s not how it worked. I took care of Nona, and I’m done.”

“Maybe it would be different. Maybe you’ve got nothing to lose.”

I doubted it would be very different, but she was right about me having nothing to lose. Spending an Iowa winter in my old V.W. bug didn’t sound very appealing. But still I hesitated.

“Go home,” Nina Simone urged, her long earrings swinging like chandeliers.

So I picked up the phone and called Nona for the first time in seven years.

Chapter 2: Strands

A week later, on the eighth night of the eighth month of the year, I arrived at the address Nona had given me still questioning the visitation/​fantasy/​ fever dream that had made me think coming back to Denver could ever be a good idea. The sun had just disappeared behind the mountains far to the west. It’s 800 miles from Iowa City, and I had been driving in my un-air-conditioned 1972 Volkswagen all day. I was exhausted, dirty, and sticky with sweat, but not at all ready to go in.

A cool Colorado night breeze, so unlike the fog that passes for air in Iowa, flowed through the windows and Nina Simone’s voice floated out of the car speakers. Just as she was singing “A gal who’s been forgotten may forgive, but never once forget” two figures, one big and one small, walked toward me out of the darkness into the light of the street lamp. I turned the key to stop the cassette tape, but I could still hear Nina’s voice telling me to go on, go on and do what you came to do. I got out of the car. A woman who I had to assume was Nona, though I barely recognized her, opened the gate and walked right up to me and hugged me as if there had never been hundreds of miles and years of bitterness between us.

She pulled away from me smiling, teary-eyed. “I’m so happy you’re here.”

I gaped at her, my eyes dry. At forty, she still looked more like my sister than my mother, especially now that the baby weight was gone. What was really strange, though, was that she had on glasses, and even more striking, she had cut her hair into a very short afro. Long, straight hair used to be her thing. She always wore weaves and extensions that floated around her shoulders like feathers, and no matter how much she was drinking, she made it to the beauty shop every six weeks to get her relaxer retouched. She was probably always the best-looking drunk in the bar.

She rubbed her hand over her tight curls and said, “I look different, huh?”

I don’t know why, but I answered no. Maybe it was because I didn’t want to talk about looks. I was wearing old cutoffs, a t-shirt stained with truck-stop burrito sauce, and, to complete my ensemble, my bandana. I had started pulling my hair again, something I hadn’t done since the ninth grade, and had cleared three bald patches around my head. The scarf was to cover the carnage.

A little girl in ballet flats, pink tutu, and a Colorado State University sweatshirt hugged Nona’s leg.

“Hey, this is Sunshine.” Nona picked up the little girl and beamed at her like she was the cinnamon on her cappuccino.

I’d seen her before, but only in pictures. She could have been anybody’s baby sitting in a bathtub with soap bubbles on her head or smiling like a Buddha in the middle of a patch of orange and blue flowers. She could have been one of those child models they display in picture frames for sale at Target. But right here in front of me in Nona’s arms, looking like Nona, looking like me, with the same thick eyebrows, bags under her eyes, and a chin like the sharp tip of a heart, there was no getting around it: she was Nona’s daughter. She was my sister.

“Sunny, this is your big sister. Say hi.”
Sunny mumbled hi.

“Hi?” I responded as if to ask, Do you know how it came to be that I have a little sister and Nona has cut off all her hair and I’m back in Denver?

Not surprisingly, Sunny didn’t have any answers.

“Come on in,” Nona said.

I got my things out of the car and followed them through the gate and up a path of small river rocks to the house. In the living room, there was music playing, men singing a cappella, something gospelly and soulful.

“Have a seat.”

Nona left and Sunny sat on the couch staring at me with her head cocked to the side like a puppy. Nona’s daughter. My sister. Half-sister, actually, but it still was never going to sound right to me. I looked away.

Three votive candles flickered on the coffee table. The air smelled like lemons and flowers. There were Barbies and stuffed animals everywhere and soft pillows on the couch. The window across from the couch was surrounded by plants: big trees in pots, ferns and vines hanging from the ceiling, and flowers sitting on the windowsill. I stared at a red orchid, thinking that if I concentrated hard enough on its flowers, shaped like exploding stars or poisonous spiders, I might be able to focus myself and regain my equilibrium.

“Come on, sit down,” Nona repeated when she returned.

She put a bamboo serving tray — a serving tray! — with sliced green apples, cheese, crackers, a small plate of sugar cookies, and two glasses of iced tea on the coffee table.

I sat on the couch next to Sunny, who immediately scooted over to the other side.

“Don’t try to play shy now,” Nona said, tickling her. “She’s been driving me crazy all day. ‘When’s my sister coming? When’s my sister coming?’” She handed me a glass of tea with a slice of orange in it. “I made it with orange mint from my yard. The cookies too. My sponsor calls me the chocolate Martha Stewart.”

I made a half-hearted laugh at her joke.

“What?” She smiled.

She was serious. Nona, who used to think she was really doing something when she chopped up some hot dogs on top of a pot of pork and beans thought she was Martha Stewart!

Clearly, I had lost my mind, somehow smoked some crack I didn’t know about, but now I could see that letting a dead singer’s ghost or a figment of my imagination talk me into moving in with Nona, even temporarily, was a mistake of epic proportions. Nina Simone had put a spell on me, and I needed to sleep it off, then I’d be able to think better, figure out where to go from here. I put down my glass. “I just want to go to bed.”

Nona murmured something to herself, then stood. “Okay. Let’s show you to your room.”

I followed her and Sunny through a short narrow hallway and turned right into a large room that was half kitchen and half sitting room like something out of Little House on the Prairie.

“This is the everything-but-the-shouting-room,” Nona said.

The prairie room looked like it was from a time when one main room was enough for a whole family and all their belongings, when people darned their own socks and told stories and sang songs after dinner. On one side of the room were the stove, refrigerator, sink and table, and on the other side were bookshelves (Nona reads now?), a toy stove and refrigerator, a red wagon filled with dolls, a wicker rocking chair, and more plants.

We walked through the prairie room and Nona went to the doorway on the left. “This is your room. Sunny’s going to sleep with me.”

At first all I saw was yellow, as if all the butter, lemons, canaries, rubber ducks, and Easter bonnets in the world as well as the sun itself had been collected into one room to please a little girl. Yellow walls, yellow comforter, yellow rug, and yellow curtains.

Nona pointed to a vase of flowers on the nightstand. “The daisies are to bring you joy, the lavender will help you sleep, and the roses are because…well, who doesn’t like roses?” she said. “You sure you don’t want anything to eat? Or something to drink? A glass of water? I like to keep one by the side of my bed. You know the altitude dries you out. It’ll take you a while to get used to it again.”

I just wanted to go to bed. “That’s okay.”

She sighed and her eyes dimmed like headlights going out when you turn off a car. I knew that look. The same look she’d have when she came home from the bars earlier than intended. But she didn’t chew her lip, so she was wasn’t too upset.

“Then I guess this girl and I will get ready for bed too.” She picked Sunny up. “Got the clinic and preschool tomorrow.”

“The clinic?”

“I work over at Eastside. I’m an admin assistant.”

Eastside was part of Denver Health, the county hospital system. I was studying epidemiology. I wanted to be a hospital administrator or a disease surveillance officer, and Denver Health was the kind of place I hoped to work in myself one day. Mi Casa de Salud, the clinic that fired me, was a lot like Eastside, except they provided care mostly for migrant farm workers from Mexico. I never in a trillion years would have guessed that Nona and I would end up even remotely in the same line of work.

“We’ll be right next door if you need anything. Your towels are in the bathroom, the pink ones. Help yourself to anything— Lord, listen to me.” She put Sunny back down, took a deep breath, and put her hands on my shoulders. I couldn’t tell if she meant to brace me or herself. She looked at me, her eyes so clear and bright behind her lenses. “LaShay, you’re home—“

“You know I hate it when you call me that. It’s just Shay.”

“I’m sorry. I forgot. But, anyway you’re home. Home. So, just…act like it, okay? Claim it.”

She looked like she wanted to say more, a lot more, but, luckily, she made herself stop because I was stunned enough by what I had already heard. Claim it?

After they left, I closed the door and sat on the bed. In my Nina-induced haze, I had agreed to stay through Christmas, but now I could see there was no way I was going to last that long. A week or two max. However long it took for me to come up with a plan B. But that was it.

As grimy as I was, I was too tired to shower and brush my teeth. I turned off the light and a glow-in-the-dark constellation of stars and moons appeared on the ceiling. I kicked off my shoes, pushed the toys off the bed, and lay down. Just as the galaxy above me dimmed, I heard Nona and Sunny go in the other bedroom. Then I heard running water, like there was a broken pipe in the wall between this room and Nona’s bedroom. It threatened to drive me crazier than I already was. I got my iPod out of my backpack, took the bandana off my head, and put in my earphones.

In the darkness, I touched my hair. The inches of new growth near the scalp were soft and fuzzy and the straightened hair beyond the new growth was dry and rough. My hand traveled to an egg-shaped bald spot above my right ear. One of these days I was really going to have to stop doing this, but today wasn’t it. I separated out one strand of hair and pulled it gently until it lengthened and flattened and all the curl in the new part was gone, then I slowly wrapped it around my index finger and yanked hard. In my hand, the nappy part of the freed hair curled back up, twisting around until it was back as nature wanted it. I separated out another strand and did the same thing. I pulled three more hairs and one by one my muscles unclenched, the spaces between my bones opened, and my blood flowed more freely. I felt my lungs expand. I closed my eyes and went to sleep with Nina Simone in my ear and five black strands of hair in my hand.

Copyright 2006 Carleen Brice

What would Nina Simone do? That’s the question 25-year-old Shay Dixon asks of her de facto spiritual adviser, the late great High Priestess of Soul, when she finds herself depressed, evicted from her apartment, and about to flunk out of grad school.

The answer - move back home to live with her recovering alcoholic mother Nona - leads Shay back to Denver where she is shocked to discover a new Nona, sober, healthy, raising a 3-year-old, and growing a lush, healing garden.

Though reconciliation seems a hard proposition for Shay, something unmistakable takes root inside her, waiting to blossom like the flowers in Nona's garden.

Soon Shay finds herself facing her first real romantic relationship and exciting possibilities. But when a crisis hits, even the wise words and soulful melodies of Nina Simone may not be enough for solace. Shay begins to realize that, like orange mint and honey, life tastes better when bitter is followed by sweet.