Exploring the art of prose


Ugly by Leesa Fenderson

Leesa Fenderson’s “Ugly” is the second-place winner of the 2021 CRAFT Short Fiction Prize, judged by Kirstin Valdez Quade.

In just six breathless pages in “Ugly,” we travel from a mother’s hospital bedside to the red dust roads of Jamaica, weaving in and out of memories shot through with trauma. The speaker insists that we not turn away from ugliness, and the language thrums with rage at the injustice of a world that dismisses the pain of Black women, rage at the injustice of death itself, rage at the violence men can inflict on women and girls, and at the pain family members can inflict on one another. Yet beneath all the ugliness is love—the tender, ferocious, gorgeous love that this woman feels for her dying mother. Kirstin Valdez Quade


Ugly, ain’t it? The whole fuck of it. The way the doctor’s fingers patted the rim of skin on Mummy’s concave chest. The twin rims where she, Doctor Small Tits, had cut off Mummy’s two breasts, golden brown to dark brown crowned areolas. Glorious. And then also the fatty tissue Doctor Small-Tits-No-Gloves had to go back in for. Surgery number two. Getting our minds right again, anesthesiologist number two, post-surgical recovery number two. Doctor Small-Tits-No-Gloves had, right in front of our faces, put her hand to her own A cups, patting them to show us that she had an excuse for not adequately preparing for Mummy’s double Ds. And my mother’s skin, the way Doctor No Gloves looked at it, and at me and my sisters, made it our fault for being so big, big breasted and Black. And she—she was a surgical oncologist, normal-sized and always right, an expert with no gloves. And it was without gloves that she patted at the ridge of the incision “healing” after the second surgery. And it was without gloves that she wrote notes on Mummy’s file. Notes of “healing well,” her small hand pulled across the page by expert knowingness and her next patient. Fingers that didn’t respond when the germ specialist, pediatric nurse, Mummy, and patient said, “Doctor, please do a culture to check for infection, something feels off.” How dare she? a nurse questioning a doctor—Doctor’s posture and dismissal said. Ugly. How dare Mummy, who had been nursing for longer than Doctor No Gloves had been alive, ask this. When she, Doctor No Gloves had checked the wound with her very own doctor fingers. Fingers that had touched the door knob, her white coat, her stethoscope. Ugly fingers. So when I see those fingers again, if I grab the small hand and bite into the middle finger and pointer and if I stretch the pinky and ring fingers away and rip the hand down the middle to the wrist—blood a geyser and her screams a geyser until my sister, patiently waiting for a track to explode on, uses her old high school Steve Madden’s chunky heel to kick Doctor No Gloves’ jaw into a slack hanging thing, you won’t blame us. Right? Because what does one do when Mummy said, after being admitted to the hospital, dull blue gown lying flat against her concave chest—when Mummy said, after coming to from the Serratia marcescens infection and septic shock that prevents healing and the emboli that went to her lung and stopped oxygen from flowing to her heart and brain—when she said, smiling at the ghost of her dead father because that was the only person she could be talking to, when she said, “You know, dying is easy.” What does a daughter do? What? When all the time Mummy had been terrified of death, scared to fly so she never went back home to see the red dirt that dusted her ankle socks when she ran from Uncle Brotherman, who hated clear, high-color girls and unleashed his hate through the big dog he set on little-girl-Mummy passing his gate on her way home from First Form. Then it was barks and cane rows and barrettes flapping in the wind as Mummy, girl-sized, ran until white curled around the corner of her open, panting mouth and red dusted the lace hem of her folded socks up the back of her legs and until her panty was soaked, pee-stained from fear of certain death. Death that was as nauseatingly pink as the long tongue receding into the mouth of the thick-shouldered, angry mongrel, that was broken from Uncle Brotherman’s cruelty. Now we didn’t know that Mummy had pissed her panties from fear. Her cousin Scena told us that, because that bitch ugly too. Not just ugly on the inside, but for sure that. Because, who goes out of their way to come up from the dusty back porch where she had washed the special set of dishes she had for us, colored piss yellow just for us and to differentiate, so that she would not eat from the dishes we used—inside-and-out ugly, that’s who. She made a show of the dishes to us. Me and my sisters, our teenage selves, out and about in our new Steve Madden chunky heels, stopping to visit Cousin Scena because she’s family. She would keep our dishes on the back porch, bring them in, share our food and then her food separately into the fine porcelain dishes from her cabinet and then wash our dishes in the yard with a hot stream of backyard hose water. So she does, Cousin Scena, that’s who goes out of their way to come up from the dusty back porch to correct my sister’s retelling of the story of Mummy running from Uncle brotherman’s murderous dog to include Mummy pissing her panty. Scena never had to run; she was too brown, and safe from Uncle Brotherman. But she was still ugly, broken, that’s why she let people call her Scena because she thought it meant sienna, a burnt, orange-like color with golden streams of the light from a late afternoon sun. Sun-kissed she was, but really it was short for Senokot, the tea that makes you shit long and foamy-hot, like a fire hose—that as soon as we got our panties down it was out. We would be sleep-wobbly because we had the wash-out tea before bed and before morning the hose would flex in our guts. Sitting straight up like a cartoon character and with roadrunner moves it was straight to the toilet then legs straight out. She was that, a fire hose of yellow-brown shit—Scena, short for Senokot. Mummy had started that nickname the day she saw Scena, home early from Second Form, taking Shirley Coconut Biscuits from Uncle Brotherman and receiving from him, in return, pats on the head. Ugly. Ain’t it? But Mummy’s nicknaming was in defense, it was righteous. So you see, I didn’t think you would blame me or the sisters for beating the shit out of that surgical oncologist specializing in not seeing Black women’s pain because you see somebody had to. That’s what little-girl-Cousin-Scena said to her mother when she explained the wire hanger, “Somebody had to.” The hanger still had the hook and had been bent into the shape of a cross. Cousin Scena was now saved or she hoped she was close to. She told me this when I told her that I told my friend Ireland to choose herself and not the cells that had attached to her uterus. The story went that Uncle Brotherman had been inside little-girl-Cousin-Scena and she felt good to be chosen and he felt good to be inside someone who was too young and it was gross to me. I covered my ears like a toddler and hummed until her lips stopped moving. I was twenty-eight and rape that was explained as love by an adult woman who had exchanged her youth to be chosen and her uterus to be almost saved, made me feel like the hose was flexing in my gut. I wanted to want to save little-girl-Scena but all I could think about was the not yet fully formed breasts of a child flattened under a big man, huge and breathing hard and ugly on top of her, telling her she was ugly and needed him because who else would want a girl the color of an ackee seed? I thought then of a baby, small and shiny black and pulled out from her uterus, the curve of the wire hanger around the black neck. And because it was a wire hanger, her uterus said I’m out too. Her mother found her bleeding out. And when little-girl-Cousin-Scena got home from Jubilee Hospital and wore a diaper and then brick-sized sponge pads she had to wash out every night, she felt like she had lost her religion or some such. So she was like, “I will be saved,” fashioning a cross from the hanger. And now fifty years later she still hopes to be saved, someday, but like the baby that will perpetually be months away from breath she will always be close to saved but not. This was how she explained her decades-old grief, I mean her religion. And after that explanation, I would like to say that she didn’t slap me so hard and so ugly that my jaw didn’t unclick and then reset from the reverb, but that would be a lie. I had said that being close to saved but not makes her god a miserable type thug—almost saved is some thug life shit. Before I got to the T on shit, she unleashed her open fist on me. It was tough, too, because her palm was calloused from washing the dishes of the never-saved with the backyard hot hose, on that dusty porch. She snarled at me her long desire to bitch slap one of Mummy’s daughters, especially my older sis Louisiana who had the audacity to be darkskin and pretty. So I took one for the team. The bruise, high on my cheekbone, was hot to the touch and purple for a while. I wore it like a badge of honor when I went with Ireland to get her uterus vacuumed out by a hose. I took a polaroid of the bruise when I got home and stuck it in the corner crease of my mirror near where I kept a jar of that dumb doctor bitch’s ring and middle fingers. Don’t ask me how I got to keep the fingers, that’s none of your business. But what might be of interest to you was that word reached us that Uncle Brotherman was on his way out by way of a noble death. RIP. Resting in peace or power was for the handsome, though. And Uncle Brotherman, neither uncle, nor brother, nor man, was not so. So we shipped a barrel for the Nine Night. At least that’s what we told Mummy the barrel was for. After rounds of chemo and seeing death smile upon her the way her father had, Mummy was scared of nothing. She booked a flight and planned to hack up phlegm from a deep trauma and spit twice on Uncle Brotherman’s grave—one for her and one on behalf of Cousin Scena. I just hoped he was still alive so that when I broke into his zinc-roofed, one-room death box in the middle of the night covered in shiny black shoe polish, calling him daddy and asking why mommy had to kill me to cover up his ugly ways, he would be so scared that he’d shit his pants. I was close. He pissed himself and cried, rolled himself into the fetal position, pulling old-man, soft-flapped skin and old hard bone into a tight squeeze. He cried a tepid hum into his threadbare mattress. The next morning, he woke and beneath his feet, all around his bed covering the floor, were doll heads—shiny black doll heads with hollowed out eyes and carved out mouths. Out the door and around the front yard, up to the gate were all the doll heads we could fit in the barrel. There would be no Nine Night because Uncle Brotherman walked out of his dying room naked, carrying a piece of rope and kicking shiny black doll heads out of his way. And he kept walking, passing the house where Mummy lived as a girl, where we were staying with Mummy while she worked up a thick phlegm. And he kept walking to Yallahs Pond. At the mouth of the pond, with the rope, he tied a big stone to his ankle, and slowly sunk into the water’s depths. His flaccid penis, an old ugly thing, had shriveled into nothing. It was beautiful. Mummy, all phlegm-ed up, was pissed. The dolls we’d found in the basement boxed up beside our old high school clothes and shoes—the dolls we’d beheaded and then cut the eyes out of and the mouths into exaggerated frowns and then painted a high gloss black and shipped to Jamaica in a barrel, were for the children in Mummy’s pediatric clinic. Sorry not sorry. That is what I said as we watched Mummy’s loogies bounce like stones across Yallahs Pond before sinking into Uncle Brotherman’s dead, open mouth.


LEESA FENDERSON is polishing a collection of short stories. Her writing appears in Callaloo Journal, Vibe Magazine, Moko Magazine, and elsewhere. Leesa was born in Jamaica, grew up in New York, and currently writes in Los Angeles where she is a PhD candidate and Provost Fellow in USC’s Creative Writing and Literature Program.


Featured image by Kojo Nyame courtesy of Pixabay


Author’s Note

For this story, I crafted, through cyclical revision, what appears to be a stream of consciousness. Each time I returned to expand the story, I would start at the beginning and revise sentence by sentence. Each revision created a propulsion that pushed the increasingly fantastical scenarios forward and into each other. The narrator’s look back at certain moments in her life, and her mother’s life, and the life of an older cousin, repulsed and incensed her. Disgust I was familiar with on the page, anger less so. Anger is this emotion that is tied to stigma and stereotype for Black women. Anger has been deemed unreliable on the page and rage deemed a lack of control. Both determinations marginalize and cause the stereotype to become a singular defining feature of Black womanhood. And yet, to remove anger from a character—to perform erasure of a single emotion—is dehumanizing. As human beings, shouldn’t we be able to access our full range of emotions? As such, in addition to grief, despair, trauma, humor, and ingenuity, I wanted rage to both be a subtle narrative guide and to also, at times, flare up ostentatious on the page. Character-wise, I wanted to tap into the narrator’s anger without pathologizing or putting the anger into an exchange of words in dialogue. I put it in her actions, her thoughts, her humor, in old and new stories, and in her remembrances.

With anger as an over- and undercurrent, I also wanted a propulsive force. The type of progressive movement in a narrative that makes me as a reader turn the next page, swept up in a story, lost to the outside world. I use amorphous terms like propulsive force or progressive movement because the science of it has been intangible to me, as a writer. I can spot it in the work of some of my favorite writers and even some of my not so favorite. I leave their prose wondering how they did it, especially when the language is delightfully approaching overwrought. Thick sentences, heavy words, a lightness of movement, and a fullness of story and character all happen in simultaneity to suck me into needing to know: what next? And to be quite honest, writing “Ugly,” a story that scared me a little with the character’s angry, revenge phantasmagoria punching out of me, I was amazed and delighted by the physics and geometry of narrative propulsion that I achieved on the page. That being so, with my approach to this story, that is, allowing the story to unfold through a revision and creation cycle, the science of crafting a propulsive narrative has become tangible and knowable.


LEESA FENDERSON is polishing a collection of short stories. Her writing appears in Callaloo Journal, Vibe Magazine, Moko Magazine, and elsewhere. Leesa was born in Jamaica, grew up in New York, and currently writes in Los Angeles where she is a PhD candidate and Provost Fellow in USC’s Creative Writing and Literature Program.