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by Kristen Gentry

excerpt from "Animal Kingdom"

Kayla took Forty-fifth Street into Shawnee Park, joining the traffic snaking from Broadway. She pulled away from the crawling caravan and managed to squeeze into a spot on the grass near an eggplant purple Cadillac Deville convertible shimmering with silver sparkles.


The guys in the front sat sideways, watching the two women dancing in the backseat along with the dudes swarming the car, stretching their arms to push video and cell phone cameras forward, pitch crumpled bills. The women’s bare feet were planted on the black leather. One woman gripped the driver’s headrest, the other the top of the backseat. Both of their asses were up, legs spread for balance and the cameras hovering beneath the tight skirts of their orange and aqua sleeveless minidresses.


“Well, that’s nice,” Kayla said.


“Don’t be a prissy bitch and act like you wasn’t on them knees in Kenny’s office.” Jade smirked.


“That was behind closed doors with someone I love,” Kayla said. “They’re letting strangers stick cameras up their pussies for money.”


“You were behind closed doors with another woman’s husband. Be real with yourself.”


Kayla sighed heavily. “I know he’s married, Jade, alright? I know. We aaaall know,” she said, but once they’d set their folding chairs in the grass, she proceeded to text Kenny like she’d forgotten. Between her fevered thumb-tapping, she took dramatic, head-heaving, face-to-sky swigs of her cooler like she was hitting much stronger liquor. Angel and Jade watched the women dancing in the car, the doggish men acting like fools. The women rotated every few songs. The men in the front would pull two or three female volunteers from the crowd and have a brief, indiscernible conversation, a back and forth of lips to ears, beneath the thumping music before the women took off their shoes and climbed into the backseat.


Some of them twerked like the bases of their backs were motorized, bouncing at speeds that baffled Angel and left her feeling deficient on a number of fronts. Cole had called her “skinny thick,” but Angel knew adding “thick” to a description of her body was all flattery without fact. Her ass wasn’t big, and her B-cups weren’t enough to draw the hoots and dumbfounded cursing that women who lifted their shirts and shook their tits received from the crowd. Her best assets were her intelligence and pretty face, but most boys didn’t care about intelligence and couldn’t be bothered with a pretty face unless it came with tits and ass for them to squeeze while they were looking at it. She’d tried twerking in front of her mirror but had given up after several attempts that felt awkward and looked stupid. Now, disheartened by the mute phone in her pocket and the likelihood of her ability to steal attention in so much bootylicious chaos, she wished she’d kept practicing.


In the backseat of the purple car now, two women giggled to each other as the bass beat around them. They folded over themselves, hid behind their weaves’ bouncy curls as they sank lower into the seat beneath the weight of the men’s boos. Angel was embarrassed for them and disappointed to know she was more like them than the women who rested their forearms over the backseat while their butts waved as easily as a flag in the breeze, the ones who grinned at their own asses, biting their bottom lips at the man in the passenger seat who’d said “Beautiful, baby,” so often Angel had managed to read the words on his lips as they rolled from his mouth with the smoke from his cigarillo. He was sexy, the better-looking and darker of the men in the car with his mahogany skin magnified against his plain white T-shirt. To the driver’s golden brown bald head, Angel preferred the rugged look of the passenger’s trim beard and low-faded short afro that looked like some woman with shea butter-slathered hands had just roughed it up.


The driver smiled a lot, shining his glittery silver and diamond dust grill like he would happily chomp the women to a sparkly finish. The passenger nodded slowly, serenely in quiet appreciation. He looked to Angel like a guy who danced capoeira, quoted history and self-help books to friends while lounging on the green of an HBCU. As the previous dancers had exited the car, he’d placed bills in their hands, nodded finally in gratitude, a well-wish, but when the driver scooted the gigglers out of the backseat, they received the nod and no money.


“You got to play to get paid!” the driver boomed, standing to address the crowd. “Who’s next?”


Jade jumped up, grabbed Angel’s hand, and raised it with hers as she yelled, “We are!”


Angel yanked away from Jade.


“Yeah, you over there in the red shirt!” the driver called. “Come on up here!” He beckoned Jade forward as if signaling a large truck through traffic. Angel couldn’t identify his heavy accent that suggested someplace new, but not too far away. It was country, Southernish, but slower than Kentucky, looser with the Rs, turning his “over” into “ova,” breaking his “here” into “hee-yah.”


“Stop acting silly and come on!” Jade hissed.


Angel sat with her just-grabbed arm tucked behind her back, hiding it from Jade. When she looked toward Driver, she found Passenger’s eyes locked on hers and remembered what today was about. Finding herself. Instinct. She was tired of living like a bird with clipped wings, grounded, even when Aunt Sandy wasn’t around to hold her down. She stood and followed Jade.


Passenger smiled as she approached. Closer, Angel could see that he had a grill too. Just the bottom canines, a silver flash behind his lips that lit him a hip-hop vampire type of sexy that was otherworldly and familiar.


At the car, Driver shook his head at Angel. “Unh unh. Too young.” He stepped back to give Passenger a better view. “It’s all in her face, see?” Angel cursed the baby still puffed around her cheekbones, regretted the loose spirals that framed and accented it. The jacket tied at her waist, caped over her skinny jeans, further suggested “minor.”


“Yeah,” Passenger spread the word into a long sigh. His eyes remained on Angel, whose breath had stopped, her heart fluttering in the stillness. “I see.”


Driver’s voice was gentle when he told Angel, “I can’t, love,” the twinkle of his smile shaded in his earnestness.


Angel found her legs and returned to her seat.


“It’s for the best,” Kayla said, finally looking up from her phone. “You don’t want to do something you’ll end up regretting and be stupid like me.” She chuckled weakly. “Kenny’s on his way,” she said this staring away from Angel, past Jade dropping her tennis shoes into the purple car and climbing into the backseat. Kayla’s gaze stretched off into the distance of women toeing through the grass like deer, their tails tipped high, men circling like bobcats, grills blasting smoke, the endless cars cruising through the park like unstrung gems, the rainbow of them gleaming in the weak sun. She raked a hand through her hair. “We’ve got some things to talk about.” She tried to sound tough, but Angel didn’t believe her or care. She was tired of everybody telling her what was best for her when they didn’t even know what to do with themselves.


She got another cooler from the car and drank it while Jade danced with another woman. Of course, Jade was good. Of course, she knew what to do. She was the best dancer Angel had seen. The crowd hooted and barked. Angel’s only consolation was that Jade danced with her ass, peeking from her denim cut-offs, toward the crowd, not Passenger’s face. That would have killed Angel, though she knew feeling territorial was silly; he wasn’t hers to claim. Still, he was a man with eyes, so he watched Jade. He told her, “Beautiful, baby,” slid money in her palm and closed her hand around it as he nodded thanks, but Angel was relieved that he wasn’t enamored like Driver who yelled, “Intermission!” throwing time out to the hyped-up crowd, tagging Jade as she made her way back to Angel and Kayla. The edges of Jade’s face, around the slick filigree of baby hair, glistened with sweat. She was still catching her breath and huffed, “I’ll be back” on an exhale with Driver behind her, sparkling over her shoulder. They went back to the car, and Passenger hopped out, heading toward Angel.


“Can I sit?” He gestured to Jade’s chair.


“Yeah,” Angel said quietly. She hadn’t realized she’d been holding her breath again until she spoke.


Kayla’s phone beeped as Passenger sat and Driver pulled off. She jumped up and directed Kenny into the vacant spot. He greeted Angel with a nervous smile, stuttering small talk. He asked if she’d won any Derby money, said a longshot named Animal Kingdom swept the competition. Angel had been in the car with Jade and Kayla, crawling through traffic when the race was run almost two hours ago. None of them had checked their phones to see what had happened. They, like most people at the park, didn’t care about the race, and Kenny, who’d grown up in Louisville, must have known that.


“You gone be alright?” Kayla asked Angel, glancing toward Passenger, but it wasn’t really a question. One arm was wrapped around Kenny’s waist, and they were leaning toward the trees edging the green, lining the river walk. Their feet were moving before Angel had finished her response.


“Sorry ’bout that back there.” Passenger rubbed his hands on the knees of his camo cargo shorts. Angel wondered if his hands were sweating. She liked to think she made him nervous.


“You don’t owe me an apology,” Angel said, though she appreciated it.


“My name’s Bryce.” He leaned forward in his chair to extend a hand. It was warm and calloused, not sweaty, when it wrapped around Angel’s in a gentle squeeze. She’d received firmer handshakes from the principal while accepting awards, smiling for Aunt Sandy’s flashing camera.


“Angel,” she replied.


“That’s pretty,” he said, settling into his chair. “Whose angel are you?”


It was an odd question, but Angel answered, “My mama’s,” and immediately felt that to be a lie. She hadn’t saved Maxine from anything. The glint of Bryce’s silver fangs as he smiled and nodded like everything made sense steered her to other thoughts.


“Mama’s baby . . .” he said. “How old are you, Angel?” He seemed slightly relieved to hear her response. “That’s not as young as I thought.”


“What did you think?” she asked. He shrugged. “Fifteen.”


There was a quiet pause before Angel threw the question of age back at Bryce. She’d assumed early twenties, but he was thirty. The alcohol helped her play it cool. “Yeah, it’s all in your face.”


Bryce busted out laughing, warming Angel with pride. She liked being able to surprise and amuse him. “Get the fuck out of here!” he exclaimed. “Chauncey said that shit, not me.”


“You agreed.”


He shrugged again. “True is true.”

“Sure is, old man.” She grinned.


“Whatever. Thirty’s not old, and I look good.” He stroked his beard and cocked a brow, posing for invisible cameras.


“You do,” Angel confirmed, surprising herself.


“Oh wow.” Bryce chuckled with embarrassment as he stared down at the grass. “Thank you.” Angel resented his tone, like a teacher thanking a student for their effort. He pulled a cigarillo and lighter from a pocket at his thigh. Angel liked the smoke’s sweet scent and Bryce’s effort to blow it away from her. “Do you know that you’re beautiful?”


Angel was startled by his sudden steady gaze into her eyes and thought he was going overboard on the intensity for such a weak line. “You’ve been calling everybody beautiful,” she said. She’d expected more, wanted more, from him.


“Isn’t everybody beautiful?” he replied.


“To God, yeah, but y’all weren’t picking ugly girls to dance."


“Okay, then why you doubting my words when I tell you you’re beautiful?”


Angel had no response.


He pointed to her chest, the cigarillo’s smoke curling over his finger. “Know that in your heart without a nigga having to tell you.”


“I know I’m beautiful,” Angel bristled. She felt like she’d been tricked and didn’t want or need Bryce’s little lesson. “I look like my mother,” she added, though she knew Bryce didn’t know Maxine.


“Why were you trying to dance?” he asked.

“Why did you want me to?”


“Girl . . . .” He flinched as if pained by the insult of her suggestion. “I wasn’t trying to see you dance. I was thinking of a way to keep you safe, tell you to watch yourself in a way that would mean something. I know I’m not your daddy.”


“Sure ain’t.” Angel wanted this to hurt but doubted it would before deciding it was a dumb point to push him to regret. She was glad he wasn’t her father. “Why you so worried about me? You were fine watching all those other girls.”


“Not really. I keep imagining how I’d feel if my daughter was dancing in some nigga’s car.” He continued to tell her about Nessa. “Short for Lioness,” he explained. His tongue lost its laziness for her name and rose to the occasion of pronouncing the short O in its fullness instead of losing it to the N. He refused to let the short E fall into a nasally short I. Nessa had just begun pulling up on furniture, attempting first steps. The unraveling of a life lived before her, without her, stung Angel with an irrational sadness. She imagined this persistent ache beat in the background of the happiness Kayla snatched with Kenny. Angel felt something like this when she thought of her mother’s days filled free of her, but that feeling was different, deeper because it was a reasonable hurt, justified. Jade was right. Kayla was stupid. For deciding to stand on the losing side of a choice that had already been made.


“Whose idea was that name?” she asked.


“Me and her mama wanted a strong name, something powerful.”


Angel couldn’t tell if the nameless address of his baby’s mother indicated that they were still together. Either way, he’d painted them as a team, and Angel didn’t like it.


“You know kids can turn that into ‘Lie on ’is,’” she said.

“Kids are dumb; my baby’s smart,” he replied.


The distance between them spanned years and miles. Bryce and his cousin Chauncey were from New Orleans. They’d survived Hurricane Katrina and were both contractors rebuilding the city where they were born and raised, Bryce told her, not without noticeable chest-puffing. As he went on about the shitty levees, chopping through his roof to escape the rising water, and Chauncey’s mother who relocated to Louisville with a sister, Angel felt like he was answering history report interview questions she hadn’t asked. A chirp from his phone interrupted his description of the post-storm mold stink.


“Chauncey and your friend gone be a while,” he said, returning his phone to his pocket. “They went to White Castle.”


Angel nodded. Tenth and Broadway. The parking lot would be packed with thumping candy-colored cars, long lines in and out of the restaurant.


“I can’t eat that shit.” Bryce yawned. “It’ll have me on the toilet all night.”


“I didn’t need to know that.” Angel frowned at the image and Bryce’s abrupt abandon of any pretenses to make himself sexy and mysterious.


“You’ll know about it for yourself one day.” He stood, reached over his head, and leaned back into a stretch. His shirt rose high enough for Angel to see the thick, black waistband of his boxers above his shorts. “I need to move a little bit. Let’s take a walk.” He pulled a blunt from another pocket and lit it as they headed toward the river walk.


“You smoke a lot,” Angel said. She was bored and frustrated to find herself stuck again in a child’s place. Attacking him in that small, niggling way lifted her spirits.


“I’m trying to quit the cigarettes and shit,” he confessed self-consciously. “Cut back on the weed.”


“Why not quit that too?” she needled. “What makes it so great?”


“You never smoked weed?” he asked.


She admitted she hadn’t, feeling like she’d been tricked for the second time that evening. “Can I try?”


“You’re a good girl, Angel.”


She hated that he responded like Aunt Sandy, not answering her question. “I’m not that good. I’m not a virgin.” The possibility of anything happening between them had dropped near zero, but in the event of that slim chance, she wanted him to know he wouldn’t be the first, wouldn’t spoil her.


“That’s not bad, that’s just living.”


“Is that what you’re gonna tell Lioness?”

“When it’s time,” Bryce said.


“Yeah, right.” Angel rolled her eyes.


“I’m serious. I’m not saying I want her doing it at twelve, but I think I could handle seventeen.”


Angel wasn’t convinced and moved on. “Smoking weed doesn’t make you bad either.”


“Yeah, you’re right, but . . .” He chuckled to himself. “You’re just trying to get into something, like Nessa fighting sleep. What you fighting?”


The trees responded to Bryce’s question with a grunt followed by a whimper. Ahead and to her right, Angel could make out Kayla through the brush. She was bent over, her dress around her waist, bracing herself against a tree with Kenny standing behind her in a puddle of his jeans.


“Ain’t that your friends?” Bryce asked as Angel ran past them, yanking him with enough force to send him tripping into a jog behind her. “Shit! I almost dropped my blunt.”


“Gross,” Angel finally said, slowing to a walk. “I don’t even know how she can do that. He was probably just having sex with his wife.” She told Bryce about Tamera’s pregnancy, the blow job in Kenny’s office. It felt good to speak without censor, but that lightness quickly leadened to guilt. “He said he loves her,” she offered in Kayla’s defense.


“That’s not love,” Bryce said. “That’s fucking, ’scuse my language. If he really loved either one of them, he would make a choice and be honest. Don’t ever let a nigga play you with some shit like that.”


“I feel like I kind of played my boyfriend. I didn’t really love him.” Angel felt shy revealing this truth she’d been keeping from herself. “I still cried when he broke up with me. He was my first. The only,” she admitted begrudgingly as if coerced.


“That makes sense.” Bryce nodded. “It’s a lot of emotions tied up in sex.”


Angel thought about Cole’s flimsy ego and her stupid hope that sex would make her feel loved, wanted entirely in the way that Aunt Sandy and every woman in every song, book, and movie on the matter had assured her would be a letdown.


“You’re really not gonna let me try it?” Angel’s eyes flashed to the blunt burning in the pinch of Bryce’s fingers. “I need something to help me handle these emotions and ease my pain.” She choked out her words in a weepy, melodramatic fashion to make them sound like a joke.


She wanted to be talking to her mother, telling her about Cole. But Maxine didn’t always have money to pay her cell phone bill. If the bill was paid, she’d probably be too busy to answer the phone. If she answered, she’d probably be too distracted to offer comfort or advice worth remembering.


“You’re a mess.” Bryce shook his head. “I’m not trying to have your mama mad at me,” he said.


Angel almost laughed. Almost cried. “My mama’s not gonna say nothing. Promise.” She crossed her heart.


Bryce sighed heavily and passed the spliff. Angel pressed it between her fingers, imagining that twenty years ago Maxine had done the same thing. Maxine could possibly be in a rotation right now if that’s the best high she could find; weed had become a last resort. Angel kissed where Bryce’s lips had been and inhaled deeply, coughed.


“That’s nasty.” She frowned, pushing the blunt back to Bryce.


“Good.” His smirk sparked Angel’s disappointment to anger. She wanted to be closer to Maxine than her face melted onto hers, her blood in her veins. She wanted to understand the choices she’d made.


Kayla’s laughter fluttered loudly in the trees’ dark lace. Angel turned around to see her and Kenny, about fifty feet away, stumbling from the trees to the walking path. Kayla’s head darted left.


Kenny’s white shirt, like Bryce’s, glowed periwinkle in the fading light, and Kayla’s quick flick to the right, hand on Kenny’s back, guiding him in the opposite direction convinced Angel that she’d seen them though she likely hadn’t recognized them. Kenny smacked Kayla’s butt and she skittered. A jockey swatting a horse’s hindquarters, the horse performing to the whip’s command popped to the surface of Angel’s drowsy thoughts. Kayla pushed Kenny weakly. A tease. A lie. She thundered to his call. In the pursuit of love and its lookalikes, girls became fillies, does, vixens, cows, queens, bitches, chameleons fading into the backseats and beds they’d fallen into with dogs, stallions, bucks, boars, bulls, cocks. Each person an entire animal kingdom. The name of that horse that won the Derby. Weird like most of the horses’ names that sounded like titles, sayings, and jokes, not actual names for pets who were called, loved, scratched softly behind their ears.


Kayla and Kenny disappeared around a bend, into the growing shadows. A crisp breeze ruffled the trees, and Angel zipped her jacket, shivered.


“Cold?” Bryce asked.


“No.” Angel lied before she’d realized it. “A little,” she corrected, “but I’m fine.”


“Come here.” He wrapped an arm around her shoulder. She stiffly leaned into him, hands in her pockets, fingers fidgeting. After all she’d envisioned, attempted, she was struck anxious by this simple intimacy, her breath caught in her throat.


He rubbed up and down her arm as if starting a fire. His vigor seemed exaggerated to highlight the utilitarian nature of his touch, its purpose to do no harm.


“Better?” Bryce smiled at her, his silver fangs sparking in the gray night.


Angel sighed, resetting her breath to its normal pace. “Better.”

From Mama Said by Kristen Gentry. Copyright ©2023. Reprinted with the permission of West Virginia University Press. 



Kristen Gentry is the author of Mama Said. She received her MFA from Indiana University. Her award-winning fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and appeared in Electric Literature, Crab Orchard Review, and other journals. She is a VONA and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference alumna, former Director of Creative Writing at SUNY Geneseo, and a member of the inaugural Poets & Writers publicity incubator for debut writers. She lives and writes in her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. For more information and links to purchase the book, please visit 






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