Tuesday, October 27, 2015
Saturday, September 12, 2015
This book is dedicated to my son, Che Anthony Parker. May you grow up and become a real superhero.
To Juanita Freeman, the original Black Swan, rest in peace.
“I'm gon' tell you like this, I put Christ first in my life. Those that don't, fuck 'em. I already know what you thinkin'. It's my fault. I'm the one to blame. I'm the reason he did what he done. You know what I say? To hell with that. We all got our crosses to bear. He got to a certain age and could make his own decisions. He knew that. He knew better. He chose otherwise. I just know my part, what I seen. Not all of it, just what I know. And what I know is the truth. You can take it or leave it. I don't give a fuck what you believe. I done had it on my chest but, God as my witness, no more. I’m done with it. Wiped my hands clean. I know what they gon' tell you. It's a story. Everybody knows it by now. Done spread across town, and to the big city where I is today, Kansas City. Word got around; word still gets around. Don't mean nothin'. Don't mean it's true. Just ‘cause some whores choose to run they mouth. It don't mean nothin' to a Christian woman like me. I put Christ first. Those that don't? Like I said… fuck 'em.” - Grandmother
Like some kind of thief, the sun came pourin’ through the bed sheets we had coverin’ the windows, robbin’ me of sleep. The birds was chirpin’, like they was a havin’ a real good conversation. All that fuss, along with the sunny day, made me want to go outside. Momma was already awake, on the couch watchin’ a program about cookin’. She was in her same spot, where the couch was sunk in from her weight. The lady on the TV program was old and hunch-backed. Outside the window I could see tree branches movin’, like they was dancin’ to some music I couldn’t hear, and the shadows of the leaves rocked back and forth on the window sill. Grandma was sleepin’ on her bed. Every so often she would snore and the sound would rip through the room like a chainsaw.
It was hot. School for the year had been done for about a week. Usually it wasn’t that hot this early in the summer, but that’s what it was. Had people already talkin’ about and wishin’ for cooler temperatures. We live on the third floor of a house in the ghetto. It’s a big house. Would be big if one family lived in it. But other people live on the other two floors.
When you come up the stairs, which are in the back of Mrs. Johnson’s house, the owner, and you open the door, you can pretty much see the whole place. To the left is the bathroom with the magnifyin' mirror. Straight ahead is the livin’ room, which is also the dinin’ room. To the left, a little past the bathroom, is the kitchen, where Momma frys everything that ain’t tied down.
To the right of the livin’ room is my little corner. I have a few comic books over there and a pad, a pencil and a few colored pencils that I draw with. Momma sleeps on the sofa in the livin’ room. Straight ahead is Grandma’s room, although it’s not really a room. It’s more like a corner, just like mine. It’s separated from the livin’ room with a bed sheet with faded yellow flowers on it. Faded like us.
There was a fan in the window, blowin’ cool air. I stood in front of the fan. Blades turned and the constant breeze cooled my face. It was like angels was flappin' they wings. So cool. I leaned in closer and hummed. The wind chopped the sound. I was a robot. A robot that liked the cool breeze.
And there on that bed is where she sat. Her gray hair wrapped in a dingy scarf, her lips and cheeks kinda sucked in from all the years of smokin’ she’s done, a real angry look permanently drawn on her face. If a word woulda been written on her face, it woulda said Mean. Angry, mean, old lady. Her thin nose always bunched up like she smelled somethin’ bad. She tapped on the box of Moore’s cigarettes with her hand then pulled one of the long brown smokes out. Her fingers was wrinkled and boney. She used them to search her breast pocket for a lighter or some matches. I sat on the floor near her feet, at first watchin’ her, then watchin’ the dust floatin’ around the room in the sunlight. Every once in a while the light from the window would be filled up with the little pieces driftin’ through the air, little pieces of somethin’ that had no idea where they was. They was lucky for that reason. I knew where I was. Outside I could hear my friends runnin’ and playin’ and enjoyin’ the first week of summer vacation. I’d wished I could be out there with them. Playin’ catch or tag or throwin’ rocks at trees or street signs. But I was stuck in the house. It was too hot out, and ‘cause of the ear infections that I always got. Grandma eventually found her matches and lit the cigarette. There was a constant stink of mothballs in the air. Don’t know why she used ‘em. Didn’t have anything to protect. I bet the moths were offended.
“I don’t know if you know this,” my Grandmother said as she blew out some smoke, “but I told your momma not to have you. Now I ain’t usually one for killin’ babies; I was always taught that the Lord put them there for a reason, that the Lord don’t make no mistakes.” She coughed. “But with you, I don’t know. I think the day your black soul was conceived, the good Lord must’ve been preoccupied.”
She thumped her ashes into a Coke can. They hissed when they hit the liquid at the bottom.
Even a few days after she said those things, they was still fresh in my mind. I wondered why my Grandmother was so mean. Momma knew it. All my friends knew it. That’s why they never wanted to come by. She always said crazy things. I always thought that maybe she was just like the Grinch, and had a heart that was two sizes too small. No. Her words on that day, when you mixed it with the smoke and all the dust in the air, was like some type of scary movie, each part was makin’ the situation more and more terrifyin’.
I was playin’ in my corner like I would normally do when I couldn’t go outside. Readin’ comic books. I guess somewhere inside me, I always wanted to be a superhero. Someone with special powers. One of the men with super strength or cool weapons. Someone who could fly or jump over buildin’s or talk to animals. The ones I liked the most was the mutants. It was like they was blessed and cursed with their special abilities. Bein’ a boy born in the ghetto would never stop a superhero. If I had powers, I could leave this place. Some of them was blessed with super fast speed, telepathic abilities, makin’ them able to move things with their minds. I really liked the mutants’ leader, Dr. Xavier. They all called him Professor X. I would imagine that I was special like them. There were other comics I liked. Others that I enjoyed. Most of them was Marvel, but I had a few DC comics. If I had my choice, I mean, if it was up to me, I would become somethin’ like the X-Men. Yeah. If it were my choice, I would be someone who was more than me. Someone with powers. I would become the invincible Alex Xavier.
But I was no superhero the week after school let out.
“Where’d you get the barbed wire?” my grandmother asked me. She stared at me, her bony shoulders pokin’ through her blue robe. “That shit ain’t just growin’ on trees.”
“I don’t know.”
“Fuck you mean? You don’t know?”
“You guess what?
“I found it.”
“Found it where?”
“Yes. In the back,” I said. A roly poly happened by near my foot. Its six or so legs moved in rhythm. I flicked at it. The gray bug quickly curled into a ball. I watched it. Where did it come from? Where was it goin’? Did it have a family? Did it have a soul?
I mashed it with my thumb and ground him into the carpet.
My grandmother didn’t notice.
“Whose cat was it? The Joneses’? I know they had a load of kittens a couple weeks back.”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? Nigga, don’t lie to me. Where did you find that goddamn cat?” Her voice hurt my ears.
“I don’t know,” I said. “It just walked by. I don’t know whose cat it was.”
“It just walked by? Poor dumb ass animal. I guess if the motherfucka’ had any instincts whatsoever it woulda’ high tailed it as far away from your sick mind as possible.”
I looked away. There was a moment of silence. The little dust planets in the room floated about without a care. I had wished I was on one of them – livin’ a life without grandmothers and mothers and cats who wished to walk by – unaware of the world around me. Just a speck. A speck of a child on a speck of a world.
“So you didn’t know whose cat it was? And you just decided…what? Boy, look at me when I’m talkin’ to you!”
I jumped. Her eyes was wide. She had real dark eyes and it was like they was lookin’ right through me.
“And you just decided what, exactly?”
“I don’t know.”
“Boy, don’t tell me you don’t know! Me and ya’ momma seen the goddamn cat on Tuesdee. All mangled. Mrs. Johnson showed it to us. She said it had to be you. Wasn’t noone else around. Could barely tell it was a cat at all. What the fuck is goin’ on in that dark brain of yours?” She took a long pull. Her cigarette lit up like a firefly. She blew out the smoke. She shook her head. Licked her lips. She reached with her left hand for her Coke can, this one she was drinkin’. She lifted it, gave it a little shake, and then put it down.
“We all outta’ pop. Go get me some water.”
I hopped up and fetched the old jelly jar she kept in the freezer. It had a pattern of leaves etched into the glass. I turned and filled her glass from the tap. A red bird, think it was a cardinal, landed outside our windowsill and started chirpin’. I looked at it and it flew away. I shut off the faucet and before I turned to face my grandmother I spat in her glass, swirlin’ it around to pop the bubbles. I turned toward her. She was nearly lost in the cloud of smoke she’d kept creatin’, a fire breathin’ dragon who produced brimstone, whatever that was, and I was in her lair, trapped, damned. I’d wished my spit was magic, a potion to knock her out. Then I could be free. Maybe it would make her sleep for a thousand years. And when she awoke, I’d be long gone, havin’ escaped to live on the dust that cluttered our air. I brought the glass to her and she quickly drank it down without leavin’ a drop. The dragon had taken the bait. I sat kinda hopin’ to see a reaction. But there was nothin’.
“Boy, make no mistake, keep this shit up and when you die you gonna burn in hell like a goddamn candle,” my grandmother said. “Like a wick lit at both ends. Only difference is, little niggas like you ain’t consumed by hell’s fire. No, sir. Shit just gonna burn yo’ ass till Kingdom come.”
I could hear a boy laughin’ outside. I think it was Demetrius. He had a real deep laugh, like an old man at a weddin’. He was goin’ into the ninth grade, a year older than me, and he was taller and heavier than all the other kids on the block. I’d wished I was outside playin’ with him and the other boys. My grandmother musta knew what I was thinkin’.
“You ain’t goin’ outside today, you little bastard,” she said. Her voice was like a garbage disposal. “What? So you can play with those kids?”
My eyes returned to the floor. I tried to find the roly poly I mashed into the carpet but I couldn’t. It was now a gray stain lost in a sea of dirty brown fabric.
“Callin’ those kids animals would do shame to animals. Dirty mouth-breathin’ bastards. All those damn kids breathe with their mouths.”
She took one last puff before rubbin’ out the cigarette and tossin’ the butt in the can. “Heathens is what they are.”
She stared at me.
“You sure do look pitiful. On second thought, go on outside and play. I ain’t tryin’ to look at that sour face all day.”
I hopped up and ran for the door. She screamed at me.
“And boy, don’t you be repeatin’ anything I say you. You hear me?”
I stopped in my tracks.
“I mean that, little nigga. Don’t be spreadin’ our business out in them streets.”
I nodded again. The sun was lowerin’ outside. Cicadas was makin’ a fuss.
“Okay. Go on. Get the fuck out.”
I ran out. I ran down the stairs. If only I had super powers. I could have flown away.
A few minutes later I was in the backyard, sittin’ Indian style in the grass. It was still damp from the downpour the day before, and the bugs was crawlin’ and slitherin’ about. Inside Momma was back from the store, fryin’ somethin’. I could smell the grease comin’ out the windows. I bet the whole house smelled like grease, not just our apartment on the third floor. Momma was a big woman, and she was always fryin’ somethin’. Either she was asleep, at work, or fryin’ somethin’. She slept alot, like it was her only form of escape. She would sleep for hours. When she wasn’t fryin’ somethin’, she could be found nappin’ on the couch. Sort of a surrender to the day. Grandma said there was very little fight left in her, with her sugar disease and all. Plus she didn’t have a man.
I looked up from the bugs and the grass and saw Mrs. Johnson standin’ on the porch eatin’ sunflower seeds. She turned and walked back in the house. Mrs. Johnson lived alone on the first and biggest floor. She owned the house. For some reason her eatin’ those salty seeds made me thirsty. I wanted some water. I looked up at our apartment on the third floor. I didn’t feel like walkin’ up those flights of stairs and bein’ hit by the smell of hot grease. I stood up and went and knocked on Mrs. Johnson’s door. She opened it and invited me in.
She smelled like baby powder mixed with a peach that was a couple days overripe. Her place was nice. Real nice. Little lace things, little circles, covered her tables and the arms of her couch. Wasn't no dust on the furniture or on the floor. She had a dish on a table with big puffy mints in it, and another dish with walnuts and a shell cracker. I wondered who could be over there crackin’ walnuts ‘cause she never had visitors.
"I suppose you coulda' went upstairs, but this here was closer.” She rubbed under her titty. I tried not to look. “You didn't have to climb them flights."
I nodded. Seemed like her water was better, fresher and colder. I guessed it was probably the same, though. She had a stuffed black dog on an end table in the corner of the livin’ room. From the time I took my first sip of that delicious water, until the last drop, I could not take my eyes off that dead dog that wasn’t livin' in the livin' room. Mrs. Johnson musta noticed my curiosity 'cause she spoke to it.
"That was Mista Snuffles. Strangest dog. He always, well, had the snuffles. Hell, it was so bad didn't know what else to call him. Coulda been Spot or somethin’ obvious like that on account his hands and feet got spots, but that woulda been too borin’ for me."
I stared at him a bit more then worked up my nerve.
"He dead, right?" She chuckled. "Of course he dead, child. If he wasn't he woulda been all over you, markin' you wit his scent.”
I guzzled down the rest of the water. I didn't know what "markin' his scent" meant, but I knew I didn't like it.
"How'd he die?" I gave Mrs. Johnson the glass.
"Oh, he got into some old rat poison. Damnedest thing. This fool was supposed to get after them rats and got his own self killed. In the military they call that "friendly fire."
"You wan' another drink?"
"Well, then, let's head back on outside." We headed out and I took another look at the stuffed dog, dead in the corner of the livin’ room.
When we got outside, the bright sunlight made us both squinch. I was still curious about one thing, and Mrs. Johnson was friendly enough so I decided to ask.
"That dog, Mr. Sniggles..."
"Mr. Snuffles," she corrected.
"Yeah, since he was black and all, you know, is that like a black cat? I mean, was he bad luck?"
Mrs. Johnson paused for a moment and looked up at the clouds. She gently rested her hands on her wide hips. She leaned in closer to me, and then closer still, like a whisper was 'bout to come out her mouth and the breath was gon' warm my ear. She was a tall women so her creepin' toward my ear seemed to take a long time. When she finally got close enough, she said "Child, some things is bad luck. From what I seen, it's more people than things that are bad luck. In fact, they could be right next to us. A wolf in wolf's clothin'."
She stood up; her movement was faster this time. I tried to think about what she said but wasn't nothin’ special or grand comin' to mind.
"What you know about your grandmother?" She asked. I shook my head.
"What you mean?" I asked. She took a few steps on the wooden floorboards to the edge of the porch, and the worn-out wood that was once painted navy blue but now was a baby blue creaked with each heavy step.
"There's stories about her. Plenty of stories. For me, you know, long as I've lived I done seen and heard it all. One story, though, one about your grandmother," she sighed, "that one takes the cake."
She turned and looked at my eyes and they musta been big as dinner plates, bigger than when I was starin’ at that dead stuffed animal.
"You want to hear this story?"
I nodded so fast I heard a small bone pop in my neck. She sighed.
"Next time," she said. "Next time."
And she walked back in the house, tweakin' those floorboards, and she closed and locked the door behind her.
Terry almost died in a car accident. It was real dark and cloudy outside. Terry’s my friend. They said the driver couldn’t see. Our street ain’t got no street lights. No stop signs, neither. The accident sounded like one of those machines that crush old cars at the junkyard, chompin’ down on glass and metal. What came before that was a high-pitch screech, like a woman screamin’. Probably was the tires. I don’t know. You could smell the gasoline fumes leakin’ from the tank, is what they said. Lucky the gas didn't catch and the whole thing go up like one of those fires white people have at the beach in movies, yellow and orange and all cracklin’. There are always car accidents at that corner. No stop signs. They said a little boy got hurt real bad. He was ridin’ with a cousin of his. He got a lotta cousins. I bet it was bad. I could see him now, bouncin’ around in that car. A brown pinball in tennis shoes. He wasn't wearin’ a seat belt. He was hurt bad. Real bad. But he didn't die. They said someone complained to the city once about the stop signs, there not bein’ any. Nothin' happened. After a couple weeks in the hospital, Terry got better. He’s at home. I haven’t seen him, yet. Grandma said he's probably a vegetable.
"Who the fuck wanna be a vegetable?" Grandma said. "Shit. One of y’all niggas end up a vegetable, I'm pullin’ the plug. Shit, I hope you pull the fuckin' plug on me. I don't wanna be no goddamn vegetable. Pullin’ that fuckin’ plug would be the only Christian thing to do," Grandma said as she beat her chest, and that rattle came and she spit the slime into an old can of Vess. Grandma likes to talk about what Christians should do. I just sat in my corner, flipped another page of the comic book I was readin’, wishin’ and hopin’ that I could lift my arms and fly through the sky and leave this place, hopin’ to find a better place. I called Terry’s house to speak to him. His momma answered and said he sleepin’, but she said I could come by the next day. Summer break just started last week. I hope Terry doesn't miss the summer. Only one more year and a summer until high school. I’m goin’ to see Terry tomorrow.
The next mornin’ Momma came in the door, sweat on her forehead, carryin’ several paper bags of groceries. She dropped the bags and ran into the bathroom. She musta needed to go real bad ‘cause I could hear it through the door. I was there, in my corner, hidden behind Grandma's thick cigarette smoke. She puffed and exhaled non-stop like a worn-down factory. Momma came out the bathroom.
"Where the hell have you been?" Grandma said. She was sittin’ on her bed with her back against the wall, one foot tap touchin’ the flo’.
Momma wiped her face with her shirt sleeve. Tan make-up messed up the cuff. She slipped her shoes off.
"I know it don't take that long to get some cigarettes and a few odds and ends. You was gone all goddamn night. You just now comin’ home?" Grandma dropped her butt into a pop can already burstin’ with them. I could see the dark brown filters pokin’ from the top. It was like a boo-cay of flowers for a chain smoker.
"Worked late last night. Then ran some errands this mornin’, went shoppin’," Momma said. She leaned against the ‘frigerator, lifted her legs and rubbed her feet one at a time. They was lookin’ dark and hard. Then she poured herself some red cream soda in her big yellow cup and took a long drink. She started to empty the bags on the counter. Chicken. Corn meal. Flour. Sugar. She opened the cabinet below the sink and pulled out two large pans. There was a bang and a clatter. The sound made me look up for a second.
"Worked late? That ain’t workin’ late! Hope you ain't doin' nothin' untoward out there."
"Just workin'," Momma sighed.
"Thought you quit that factory job? Bein’ lazy like yo' daddy." Grandma began hackin’ ferociously. Several birds on the tree just outside my window scattered in a flurry. They musta thought the dragon was comin’ for them.
"I never quit, Momma. That business left town."
Grandma coughed again.
“Momma, you know your health ain’t good. You should cut back on the cigarettes.”
"Shit. Smoked when I was carryin’ you. Helps keep the baby small. No painful delivery. Besides, I don't trust that new doctor. Talkin’ ‘bout my heart bad. I feel fine. That's why I never went back."
Momma filled a pan with grease and lit the stove under it. A blue flame burst and then went yellow.
"Anyway, what you mean the factory left town? Well, where the hell is a business goin’ to go? I guess they took the damn foundation and all, huh?"
"No, ma'm." Momma rubbed flour on a few pieces of chicken that she had just ripped from they plastic coffin. "The operations. The operations went to Mexico. Or China, I think."
"Mexico. Enough damn Mexicans around here! They didn't need to move anywhere to hire some of them. Or no damn Chinamen for that matter.”
The heat took to the pan and the grease began to crackle. Momma flipped and rolled the chicken until it got a nice coatin’ in the flour. Brown lumps now covered in snow.
"They said it was cheaper."
Grandma felt her robe pocket for her box of cigarettes. She opened it. It was empty.
"What was cheaper?"
"The workers. They could pay them less."
Grandma looked on the nightstand and found a loose cigarette and lit it.
"Pay them less? Hell, they wasn't payin’ you. What they payin’ them in? Beans?"
She chuckled under her breath.
Momma dropped the chicken in the hot grease and it popped. The grease was jumpin’. She didn’t even snatch her hand back as drops of the hot oil leapt from the pan onto her arm. Grandma sat on the bed, draggin’ from her cigarette, lookin’ up at the ceilin’.
"Wait a minute. Let me get this straight. You ain't at the factory no more?"
"Then where the hell you comin’ from? You been gone all day. Got me here with ya' retarded son all goddamn day. You coulda been in here with his slow ass! Where the fuck you been all goddamn day?"
Momma wiped her forehead again.
"I've been at my new job."
"New job? What the fuck is yo' new job? You betta not be out there with Sugar and his girls. Spreadin’ ya' legs. Embarrassin’ me in front of the church and the whole goddamn neighborhood."
Momma pulled a clean plate from a cabinet and pulled a piece of chicken from the hot bath. She didn’t feel like tellin’ her Sugar had long been dead.
"No. That's not what I'm doin’. I got a job waitressin’."
"A what? A waitress?" Grandma pulled the cigarette from her lip and sat up in the bed. She twisted her skinny neck and inspected Momma. "Where you a waitress?"
She let out a raspy cackle.
Grandma froze. The Gold Palace had a sign in gold lights that was lit at night. Some of the lights were broken, so it read Go alace. I would pretend it said Go Alex. Or maybe it was go Alice, like Alice in Wonderland. The Gold Palace was just a few blocks away, on Prospect Ave. On Prospect you could get everything. Milk. Whores. Crack. Good fried chicken and French fries.
“Jesus H. Christ. With all them nasty junkie whores in there gyratin’??”
"I needed work. Just started a couple days ago." Momma pulled a second piece of chicken from the grease and slammed it on the plate. “The pay is good. All cash.”
"You know those whores have diseases? AIDS. Influenza. All that."
“I don’t really interact with the girls. I take the customers’ orders. And get the drinks from the bartender. The few girls I have met have been nice.”
“What you wanna work in a place like that fo'? You want to catch that mess they got? That's that plague. Been knowin’ that was comin’. It's in the Bible."
Grandma flicked her ashes in the pop can and they spilled over onto her night stand joinin’ the other ashes that was already there.
I turned to her.
"Get me a cana’ pop."
I got up from my corner and went to the refrigerator.
"Not a new can! I got some old ones under the sink."
I got the empty can and brought it to her.
"What the fuck would I want a new can for?"
"Dumb ass. Bring me the remote, too."
I picked up the remote and brought it to her.
As she flipped through the channels I returned to my little corner, playin’ with cars and robots and army men.
Voices and music and laughs went in and out like a weak radio signal. There were women sellin’ lotion, kids eatin’ bright colored cereal, men smilin’ and holdin’ bottles of beer. She stopped on one channel showin’ a black man wearin’ a suit. He was bein’ interviewed on some news program. People was listenin’ real closely to what he had to say.
"Dinner's ready," Momma interrupted. She rubbed her hands together, like they was sore.
Grandma turned, coughed up some phlegm, swallowed it, and then put her wrinkled feet on the floor.
"Niggas always want to be like the white man. This nigga ain't no different."
She clicked the TV off and walked toward the table, half bent over, smellin’ like an incinerator.
Momma worked in a factory for 20 years. Doin’ the same thing. Everyday. Sewin’ buttons on jeans. Sewin’ buttons on jeans. Sewin’ another button on a pair of jeans. When the news came that the factory was closin’, the women only had a few days to find other work. Momma didn’t know how to do much. Momma did what she could. She didn’t have a man. Something happened to him, too. It went like this: This was Poppa. Didn’t know him much, but what I’ve been told is, strangely, he was a good man. The type of good man that don’t come ‘round here, or from here. But he was a good man. Momma met him at that old factory.
She don’t talk about Poppa much, too painful. They had good memories, though. That I know. He did odds and ends, picked up around the place. He was nice to Momma. He had a little bit of a limp and Momma never knew how ‘cause Grandma raised her not to be rude and ask people about things they couldn’t help. Grandma would say mean things about Momma bein’ simple and Poppa bein’ simple, and they was perfect for each other and that was why I was simple. “Just a smilin’ bunch of happy retards,” she once said. Most people can recall when they first met somebody, ‘specially they first love (only love!), but Momma don’t remember when she first met Poppa. Grandma said it musta been “uneventful.” But soon they became acquaintances in the old factory and they would sit and have lunch and sandwiches and smile and be happy and simple together. Momma said I was a surprise, but a good one. They was happy when she got pregnant. Poppa got murdered while Momma was pregnant. It went like this:
The nightclub was jumpin’ with jazz. A cover band was playin’ some oldie but goodies. Peoples was laughin’ and dancin’ and drinkin’ wine and beer. Poppa was at the bar havin’ a cold one just mindin’ his own business. That band was playin’! I mean playin’! The lead singer was sweatin’ somethin’ terrible and he was tappin’ his foot and the drummer was drummin’ and they was goin’ at it. Really jammin’. Poppa was bobbin’ his head (just a little) and really feelin’ that cat go. The mood was good and everybody was havin’ a good time right on Prospect Avenue. Just when the set was wrappin’ up and the people was clappin’ and the lead singer was givin’ his ‘thank yous’ (he was a local kid done good, grew up not far from Prospect Avenue) well, that’s when Sugar started cursin’ one of his whores and sayin’ she disrespected him.
“’Hoe. You ain’t worth this,” he said and tipped his glass a bit and a drop of whiskey hit the floor. “Now get down there and lick it up, you goddamn dog!”
The music stopped cold. Got real quiet up in there. They said you could hear a mouse piss on cotton. The whore musta’ been scared ‘cause she was shiverin’. She was real pretty and high yellow with long wavy hair.
“Come on now, Sugar,” the bartender said. “We just tryin’ to have a good time.”
“I is havin’ a good time, Bookie,” Sugar said. “Now bitch, like I said, lick it off the fuckin’ flo’!”
Now the girl truly had to have been scared of Sugar, ‘cause she started down like she was ‘bout to lick that spilled whiskey off the floor, and that’s when Poppa stopped her. He reached out for her shoulder and stopped her kneelin’ motion and looked like the Lord Almighty touched her or somethin’, ‘cause she jumped up, and moved and stood behind Poppa. That really pissed Sugar off ‘cause then he said somethin’ like “Nigga, is that yo’ ‘hoe?” Poppa shook his head. “Then nigga, don’t touch that ‘hoe. That bitch is my property!” But Poppa didn’t budge so that musta’ really pissed Sugar off ‘cause that’s when he pulled a blade and the whole nightclub gasped because that meant he meant business and Poppa still didn’t budge (musta been some trait or values for courage or somethin’ that his father instilled in him). But Sugar didn’t bluff and he wasn’t known for bluffin’ and people knew that so he stuck Poppa with that blade a few times in the gut and ran out the club and Poppa fell over and the whore screamed and a lot of women screamed and Bookie leaped over the bar like a young athlete and pressed them white bar rags on Poppa’s wounds but too much blood was comin’ out and Bookie yelled “Somebody get a ambalance!” and he kept pressin’ them dirty bar rags that smelled like beer on Poppa’s wounds but it was too much blood just too much blood and it kept spillin’ just spillin’ out his gut and the ambulance came, it got there quick is what they said so Poppa was spared from dyin’ in a nightclub but he died in the back of that ambulance on the way to the hospital. Just too much blood lost.
That was Poppa. And that’s how Poppa got murdered.
Now, the streets was empty. Like always. Nothin’ but the sounds of crickets and cicadas. Every once in a while an ambulance or a police car would race down Prospect Avenue, either goin’ to save a life or to take one. A shot would ring out every once in a while. It was the summer so you never knew if it was a firecracker or a bullet. Sometimes a shot would ring, then a few minutes later you would hear the siren. Sometimes that’s how you knew it was a bullet… and not a firecracker.
The next day, around noon, I went out to see Terry. It rained last night, so the stairs, all covered in chipped white paint, was slippery. The summer air was hot and sticky. From the third floor we can see the whole neighborhood.
The houses are big in our neighborhood. Big and old. Grandma says they had sturdy construction, that they used to be real nice. Then desegregation happened and the niggas came and messed them up. That’s what Grandma says. But I know all the homes aren’t bad. Mrs. Fisher, over on Wabash Avenue, her yard is really nice. Bright flowers, I think roses and some other kinds, yellow ones and deep purple ones, bunched up in a garden she tends to in the front. Grandma says Mrs. Fisher was a whore, and that's why she spends all her time beautifyin’ her surroundin’s. "Whores need to keep pretty things around them,” Grandma once said. “Especially old whores."
The second floor is where Rox lives. Momma said she had a man once. He used to help around the house, and some other houses in the neighborhood. Real good with his hands. Then one day he just up and left. Not a word. They said Rox cried for two weeks straight. Now she mostly keeps to herself. Our place, on the third floor, our place is nothin’ more than an attic with a sink. It ain’t much of a home, but it’s the only home I’ve ever known.
I walked down the street and looked at the houses on our block. Most of them looked alike. Leanin’ porches, sheets for curtains. Terry and his momma and his brother and his cousin and his cousin’s momma all lived in the same house. I always wondered where everybody slept. There was only two bedrooms. Last year, when I was still in seventh grade, Terry’s cousin got arrested. They don’t talk about it. Every once in while when I’m there, a man in a shirt and tie stops by and checks on him. Terry’s cousin doesn’t like the man.
When I got to the house, loud music was playin’ They was listening to Eazy-E. Curse words and all. I could hear Terry’s brother laughin’. I rang the doorbell.
“Who is it?” he yelled over the music. I seen him look through the window next to the door. He opened it. He had on a bright Cross Colours t-shirt.
“Hey,” I said.
“Terry in the back room.” He slammed the door and it shook the house. I always wondered why the family with the most people lived in the smallest house around here.
I always liked comin’ to Terry’s house because they had everything. All kinds of snacks and cookies and cakes. They always had cold pop. Different flavors, too. They always had different types of cereal. We never had cereal. Terry said they had all that cool stuff to eat ‘cause his momma was on welfare and got food stamps. He showed them to me one time. It looked like Monopoly money. I wished we was on welfare. Grandma said she didn’t believe in welfare, that’s why we never had name-brand cereal. Just Best Choice. Terry and his cousins had all the cereral and all the videos games you could think of.
I walked toward the back, I had only been back here one time before. We were playin’ hide and seek a few months ago. The game started in the basement where the three boys spent most of their time playin’ video games, drinkin’ beer and cussin’. I ran into one of the rooms and hid in the closet. I could hear Terry searchin’ the other rooms when the sound of the front door closin’ rattled the walls.
I heard a second set of footsteps. They was strong steps that knocked the wood floors.
“What y’all doin up here?” Terry’s mom said.
“We playin’ hide and seek,” Terry said. He rubbed his neck.
I cracked the closet door and peeked out.
“Take that shit downstairs.”
“But nothin’! Take that shit downstairs!”
Terry walked off. His mom walked in the room. She was wearin’ a blue dress. The fabric was real tight and it stuck to her body, like she was wrapped in a rubber glove. I could smell flowers and baby powder. She had a wide mouth, with nice teeth that went right in a row, and red lipstick. She closed the door behind her and locked it.
I didn’t know what to do. She reached back and grabbed a zipper that was at the top of her dress and slowly pulled it down. I could see the black bra strap that ran under her arms and cross her brown back. She slipped the dress off and there was no underwear. I must’ve made a sound because she stopped in her tracks and turned toward the closet door. I was tryin’ my best to be quiet, but I must have been shakin’, because I could see her walkin’ closer. Nothin’ but a bra on. There was a patch of kinky hair down below, a triangle upside down. She walked closer to the closet door, her face wrinkled as if she heard a mouse, but wasn’t sure. She was so close to me that her sweet perfume now smelled too strong. I was shakin’ bad. She went to open the closet door and there was a hard knock.
“Momma! Have you seen my friend?”
Terry’s mom stopped, like she was thinkin’. She turned away from the closet door and walked to the headboard where a black silk robe was hangin’. She put it on and opened the bedroom door.
“Boy, what you say?”
“My friend. We was playin’ hide and seek. Have you seen him?”
“Naw, I ain’t seen your ignorant ass friend. Take ya little ass outside and play.”
Terry turned back down the hall and his mom followed. I jumped out of the closet and ran across the hall to the bathroom and slammed the door. I had to pretend like I was usin’ the restroom. I heard footsteps back into his momma’s room and the door slammed shut. I waited a few more minutes then came out the bathroom.
“Man, where you been?”
“I was in the bathroom.” I said.
“Why you sweatin’ so bad?”
“I don’t know.” I wiped my forehead.
“Come on. We made it to level eight on Mario Brothers.”
I followed Terry down the stairs to where the boys played, in the dark cold basement.
I went home that night and I was thinkin’ about Terry’s momma. I had never seen a woman naked. Not even on TV. Not in a movie (we never went to the show so that could be part of it). Momma was on the couch lookin’ at Jet magazine. Grandma was gone somewhere. I went to the bathroom. In our health ed class they said boys could ejaculate startin’ at around age twelve. Since that was my age I was curious. I made sure the door was locked. I took my pants down, sat on the toilet, and touched myself. It was hard. I started to pull on it. I was thinkin’ about that upside down triangle of hair. Her curves. Her smooth dark skin. She was perfect. A black Barbie doll. A doll with hair. A doll that smelled good. Smelled sweet. I kept pullin’ on it, seemed like a while. I was almost gettin’ tired, just about ready to stop, when I felt this… sensation. It was like it was comin’ from my soul. Deep inside, it started to bubble up. The sensation started to grow, and grow, and grow. I was feelin’ confused but I didn’t stop pullin’ on myself. Then… it came out. Felt like my heart was ‘bout to stop. My thoughts got foggy, my arms and legs went stiff, then numb. I slid off the toilet. The stuff was all over my hand.
“Boy, you all right in there?” Momma called for me.
I couldn’t think straight.
“Yeah, just slipped.”
She didn’t say nothin’ else. I got some toilet paper and cleaned myself up. I flushed the toilet. My thoughts started to come back to me. I felt like a different person. I liked that feelin’. I walked out of the bathroom.
But this day at Terry’s was different. We wasn’t in the basement. We was in Terry’s room. His momma had on jeans and a t-shirt. I tried not to look at her because every time I looked at her I could only see that black bra and that patch of hair down there. Terry was lyin’ in his bed. He looked skinnier than I remember, but he was still twice my size.
“Hey, man,” he said.
“Thanks for comin’ by. Your grandma said it was okay?”
“You’re feelin’ better?” I asked.
“Did it hurt? When the other car hit y’all?”
“Yeah. It hurt at first, but I don’t really remember nothin’ after that.”
He had a plastic white brace around his neck. He looked like a dog that wasn’t supposed to bite himself.
I pointed to the brace.
“Naw. Doctor said I need it. For support. Should be able to take it off in a week or so.”
“Oh. So you won’t miss the summer?”
“Nope. Doctor said I’ll be okay. Didn’t break nothin’. He said I was lucky. Did strain some stuff, though. Just gotta take it easy for a few days.”
I sat on the edge of the bed for a few minutes, not sayin’ nothin’. I looked at Terry, then out the window for a few seconds, then back at Terry.
“Well, Terry’s gonna need some rest,” his momma said, standin’ in the doorway.
“Okay. Maybe I can come back tomorrow.”
“Maybe.” She smiled. I walked out. Terry tried to turn his head to watch me leave, but he had to turn his whole body.
A couple days later me and Terry was outside in the sun. We was walkin down the street. Momma asked me to get her a filet-o-fish from McDonald’s. I called Terry to see if he wanted to go. He said yes.
“What you think about the new D.O.C.?” he asked. He wasn’t wearin’ his neck brace.
“Where’s that thing for your neck?”
“I ain’t wearin’ that stupid thing.” His neck looked skinnier and whiter than the rest of him.
“Didn’t the doctor say you had to wear it?”
“I ain’t listenin’ to that stupid doctor. Momma said he don’t know what he’s talkin’ about.”
“Oh,” I said. I kicked a rock. It skipped a few feet and landed in the grass.
“I said what you think about the D.O.C.?” he repeated.
“It’s good. Everybody playin’ it.”
“Yeah, I can’t wait to get a car with some beat in it. Gonna play the D.O.C. real loud.”
“Yeah,” I agreed.
“The Royals doin’ good. Everybody sayin’ they goin’ back to the World Series.”
“Oh,” I said. “I wouldn’t know. Can’t watch them at home.”
We heard sirens around the corner and it sounded like it stopped about a block away.
“You hear that?” Terry asked.
“You wanna go see what’s happenin’?”
We got to the corner of 31st and Prospect and seen a man laid out on the sidewalk in front of the Kentucky Fried Chicken, across the street from the check cashin’ place. There was a couple people surroundin’ him.
“Make a path, people,” the man from the ambulance said.
We was still pretty far away so we couldn’t hear what else they was sayin’.
“What you think happened?” I asked.
“Not sure. Probably got shot.”
“Oh,” I said. I thought for a second. “Did you hear a gunshot?”
Terry looked at me. “No.”
He looked back at the man laid out on the sidewalk. He looked like one of those bear rugs in the movies, but there wasn’t no fireplace. There was blood on the ground.
“He probably got stabbed.”
I nodded. I looked over and saw Caesar standin’ by us. He walked closer. In one hand he had a bottle of liquor or wine in a brown paper bag. In the other hand he had a leg from KFC that he was finishin’ off.
"You little niggas see this?" Caesar said, smackin’ his lips on the greasy chicken. He was tall and skinny and you could see the veins in his hands and arms. He smoked crack.
"Don’t let that be you. This here, where we live, this where people die. They just go on and disappear. You want that to be you?” He used the chicken bone to point to the man on the ground.
“No,” I answered.
He threw the bone on the sidewalk. He had stripped it clean.
“Yeah, if you do, the street corner might get some new teddy bears, or old ones, and a couple balloons or a bottle of liquor. And you don’t even drink. Maybe you’ll get a tiny white cross in the ground. Ain’t nobody too worried.”
We were confused. I looked over at Terry. He wasn’t sayin’ nothin’. Caesar was just ramblin’. He was lookin’ down as he talked, like he was lookin’ for loose change on the ground.
“Sometimes, ain’t even no funeral. Costs too much. They can burn the body for cheap. You get a jar full of black ashes. I seen one one time, had flowers on it. They was painted on. Looked like a little kid did it because the lines was all crooked.” He kicked a pebble like he thought it was somethin’ else. He kept lookin’.
“That’s your uncle or your aunt or yo’ mama in that thang. Sometimes it’s the baby of the family. Was the baby. The one that sold dope and got shot. Or the two-year-old that got thrown into the wall by the new boyfriend. Coulda been old scraps in that jar. Burnt pig or beef, something the dog didn’t want. And they people payin’, thinkin’ it’s they loved one in that thing.”
He looked at me.
“Who’s to say?”
I shook my head again.
"The game done changed. They flipped it up, man." Caesar took a drink from the paper bag. Some spilled out and ran down his lip. It was purple so it was probably wine. He didn't wipe it. “At least that motherfucka Reagan is gone. Now they got his right hand man Bush in there.” He took another swig of wine.
"But they done changed history, man. Invented this crack shit and now we dyin’ by the boatload. These motherfuckas switched it up! That nigga over there on the ground owed somebody money. We was kings and queens. And you little niggas don't know shit! What color is Jesus?"
The people from the ambulance lifted the man up and put him on the stretcher. Listenin’ to Caesar I didn’t pay attention to see if the man was still bleedin’, or if he was dead. Or if maybe I knew him. I wanted to ask Terry if he saw anything but Caesar was talkin’ to him.
“I asked you a question.”
Terry looked at me.
"Fuck you lookin' at him fo'? I asked you a question. What the fuck color is Jesus, nigga?"
Terry didn’t say nothin’.
"White," I said.
Caesar let out a laugh that sounded like it came from deep inside his belly, if he had a belly. "Hell naw! See, I knew they had you. Jesus ain’t white! Y’all dumbass niggas prayin’ to a white Jesus."
I sighed. Terry grumbled. Caesar looked at us.
"Check it, I ain’t knockin' you. Ain’t yo' fault you dumb as shit and ignorant. You just ain’t know no better. Check it. It's real simple. Only white people is from Europe, right?" I shrugged.
"I guess," Terry said.
"You guess? Motherfucka I'm tellin' you. Only white people is from Europe. Jesus wasn't from Europe, so he wasn't white. It’s that simple."
I stared at Caesar. Terry looked at the ground. He kicked a piece of broken glass. Caesar took a look at both of us. He lifted the bottle and guzzled the rest of the wine.
"Fuck it. Fuck am I wastin' my time with y’all little niggas. I'm ‘bout to go cop some dope and smoke it. Bush gon’ have y’all down there in Panama fightin’ Noriega soon enough.”
He walked off, into the hot sun, drunk, but still cravin’. He tossed the bottle. It floated up in the air, then hit the hot concrete with a crash. Everybody standin’ around turned toward the sound.
I looked at Terry.
We walked to McDonald’s and I got Momma her filet-o-fish. I bought Terry a cheeseburger. They was two for two dollars, so I ate the other one. We walked back, carrying Momma’s sandwich in the warm sun.
The next day was even hotter. The weather man said it was over 100. The sun was sad. Swear that's how it seemed. It was so hot even the sun was sweatin'. Momma had told me to stay inside. Some kids around the corner had passed out one time when the temperature got above 100. I guess maybe she got tired of lookin’ at me peepin’ out the window, or maybe she was bored herself, ‘cause she came up to me with a question.
"Wanna go to the fountain?"
"Yes." The fountain was just that, a big fountain. But it was in the ghetto so we used it like a swimmin’ pool. It was always crowded with kids and they mommas.
I put on some shorts and we headed to the bus stop to ride to the fountain. We walked outside the house and the heat smacked us.
"Sho' is hot today," Momma said. I frowned up my face. She looked at me. "Don't want you runnin' around today, but you should be fine in that cool water. I brought your inhaler just in case."
We headed down the block and I could feel the sticky, sad air in my face and in my chest. Within a few steps me and Momma both had sweat rollin' down our backs. Wet circles on our armpits.
We walked to the bus stop. We got there. "Don't split the pole," Momma said. I walked closer to her. There was an old fat lady, fatter than Momma, standin’ with a big black umbrella. It wasn't no rain so I stared at the umbrella, then looked to the sky, then back to the umbrella. She musta' seen we starin’ cause she said somethin’. "You right, it ain’t doin’ much. Need somethin’ to block this humidity."
The bus came and the old fat lady got on first. It look her a long time to climb the stairs and every second seemed like forever because it was so hot!
She got on and then we got on. There was a lot of pitiful, sweaty people on that bus, clothes was either soaked or half off, hair was crazy and they faces was long and miserable. Nobody was talkin'.
The bus bumped along and when the fountain finally came into view Momma rang the bell and we got off.
Kids was everywhere! Runnin' and laughin'. They was wipin’ the water from they eyes so they could see who they would get next and who was tryin' to get them.
"Come on, Momma," I said. I ran from the bus stop toward the fountain leavin’ Momma behind. She had those bad feet and a slow walk, and I didn't want to waste any more time.
When I got to the fountain I was breathin' hard. I hopped in the cold water. It felt good but that steamy heat got in my chest and stuck there. I stopped for a second to catch my breath. I climbed out the fountain.
"Didn't I tell you?" Momma said as she walked up.
I couldn't speak so I nodded. Slowly I started to catch my breath. My chest wasn’t heavin’ as much.
“You feelin’ better?” Momma asked.
“Good. You wanna go back in the water?”
“Ok. You can go back, just watch yourself. Okay?”
I got back in the water but it seemed colder now. Like, the water didn’t want me there. But soon that heat came blazin’ and that cold water helped shield us from the hot sun that kept burnin’ and burnin’. Kids was splashin' and laughin'. I started splashin' and laughin', too. Then a group a kids, seemed like an older boy was the leader, climbed out the fountain and ran to a spot like the edge of a cliff that was a few steps away. The fountain was on kind of a hill, and this hill was all grass and ran down from the fountain into a flat place with more grass. The kids started rollin' down the hill. They was really laughin’ now, gettin' all covered in grass. I looked to Momma and she wasn't payin' attention so I jumped out the fountain and ran to the hill, too, and threw myself over. I was rollin’ down that hill, eyes open, laughin’ like crazy. I seen blue sky then green grass. Blue sky, green grass. Blue, then green. Blue, green. Blue, green. It was a tunnel of blue and green. I was goin' faster and faster! Seemed like I was headed for some terrible collision with somethin’ I couldn't see. I got worried for a second but it was nothin' I could do. The blue-green was goin' so fast now that it became a blur. My head hurt. I was speedin' down the grassy hill in a black tunnel. I zoomed to the bottom of the hill and started to slow. There was no collision. My body stopped rollin’. I stood. I was dizzy. The other kids was still down there. In shorts, we stood there, hot from the sun, dizzy and covered with grass, in the middle of the ghetto. I made my way back to Momma.
A few days later Terry asked me if I wanted to sleep out at his house. I said yes. I asked Momma and she said okay. Grandma said she didn't give a fuck.
When the day came I packed a small bag with a change of clothes and walked the two blocks to Terry's house. His house was different. What Momma didn't know is that there was never no adults there. Never. So Terry and his older brothers and cousins did what they wanted. They cussed and drank liquor. They played video games all day and ate hot dogs and potato chips with hot sauce. They had girls over all the time, and they was always smokin' weed. Terry's momma smoked weed, too, so they was never worried about the smell. The night came and me and Terry set up our blankets and pillows on the grass in his backyard. He didn't have fences but we didn't care. Every once in a while a police car or ambulance would go by but that never stopped us from sleepin' out and lookin’ at the stars. Lightnin’ bugs was flashin’ they tails, lightin’ up the ‘hood. They didn’t know where they was.
We had talked for a while and after drinkin' all the Kool-Aid we could handle, Terry started squirmin' and fidgetin'.
"What you doin'?" I said.
"You ain't tryin'."
"Let's go do somethin'."
"Do somethin'?" I sat up. "Like what?"
"I don't know. Walk around. Look in people's windows. We might see somebody doin' it."
We got up and left our blankets flat on the grass. It musta been real late 'cause all the lights in Terry's house was off and there was no more music playin'. Even though it was late at night it was still hot and humid with the summer air.
The neighborhood was quiet and wasn't no cars on the street. The first house we went to was across the street. It was a momma and two sisters, both older than us. Nobody in the neighborhood thought they was pretty but if we could see them doin' it, or with no clothes on, I wanted to see.
We snuck around to the side of the house and got real close to the window. It was dark and the blinds was closed. We walked to the next window and tried to peek in and that's when a real bright spot light popped on that made the whole house shine.
"Shoot! Run!" Terry yelled. We took off. Runnin' down the sidewalk in the pitch black. After about a block I could hear Terry laughin'.
"Didn't know they had one of them motion lights."
"Me either." I tried to catch my breath. "Why you laughin'?"
"'Cause," Terry said with a grin. "You shoulda seen yo' face."
"Come on. I know where we can go." Terry lead the way.
We went about three blocks over. We saw Tiny's house. He was about my height, even though he was probably about 35 or 40 years old. He was layin’ in the bed with his girl. Terry knocked on the door. Tiny opened.
“Fuck y’all little niggas doin’?” he asked.
“We came to see if you was bangin’ your girl,” Terry said. I laughed.
"Naw, I wasn't fuckin', but I'm ‘bout to. Take this." He handed us a bottle of Cisco and a joint and a book of matches. "Get the fuck outta here." He walked back in and slammed the door. I looked at Terry.
“Cool,” he said.
We drank from the bottle of Cisco, passin’ it back and forth. Terry lit the joint and took a puff. He coughed.
“You think anybody is lookin’ for us?”
“At my house?”
“Naw. Ain’t nobody lookin’ for us.” He passed me the joint. He rubbed his neck.
“Your neck still hurt from the accident?”
I looked at the weed.
“How do you smoke it?”
“You never smoked weed before?”
“You just put it in your mouth and inhale, like a cigarette.” I did like he said. I started coughin’ real hard. Terry laughed. “You funny.”
We walked back to his house, drinkin’ Cisco and smokin’ weed. By the time we got back, we were high and drunk. Crickets was makin’ their chirping sounds. We walked through the grass and with every step, the crickets got quiet. We didn’t want to bother them. They didn’t know we was high. We laid out in the grass in the backyard. The lightnin’ bugs seemed brighter now, and everywhere.
“I wish I was rich,” Terry said. “I would buy all kinds of things. You wanna be rich?”
I looked up at the stars.
“I don’t know. If it made me happy, then yeah, I guess so.”
Terry rolled over and looked at me.
“If you rich you definitely be happy.”
I thought about what he said.
“I’m feelin’ happy right now,” I said. We both laughed. Fireflies blinked and the stars was bright.
I went home the next day. It was a good thing, too, because it started rainin’ real hard. The rain was stingin’ when you went out in it. It was comin’ down real sharp, like wet needles. It was steamy and gray that afternoon. The kids was splashin’ in puddles and laughed as they played tag and other games. I sat on the porch next to my grandmother, who was pullin’ from a long cigarette, watchin’ the kids in disgust. We never really sat on the porch, but for some reason that’s where we was. That’s when we seen him. He was soaked in rainwater. The street seemed to go quiet. We watched the man running, a huge gash on his head, down to the white meat, blood painting his face as he ran. He ran as if Satan himself was chasing him, but we looked, and there was no one behind him, no one coming after him. We looked closer and we seen he only had on one shoe. When he passed directly in front of our porch, Grandma's cigarette now a stub with ash clingin’, the rain let up and the sun hit the wet street with brilliance. The blood slidin’ down his craggy face was now a gleamin’ bright red, so bright in fact that the rest of the world now looked dull in comparison. And just like that he was gone. Down another block. My grandmother scoffed.
"Niggas," she grumbled before takin’ a long drag from her cigarette and mashin’ the butt into an ashtray. We sat there in silence for a few moments. She fumed. I thought about what I had just witnessed, and somethin’ inside me hoped that I would never see anything that would make me run away so fast, so afraid.
"Hey." The next day I was woken up."Get yo' ass up," my grandmother said. "We goin' to church."
Momma and Grandma had been raised in the church. They still went from time to time, but not as often as they used to. The old pastor died at the church they went to for years and Grandma said it wasn't the same. She said the church only cared about takin’ money, not savin’ souls, and she stopped goin’.
"You need to hear the Word today," Grandma said. "Get dressed."
I got off my bed and got ready, brushin' my teeth and washin' my face. Momma was already up fryin' eggs and bacon. After I got dressed we took a few bites and got ready to go. Grandma didn't eat.
"Come on," she said. We walked out the house and down the stairs toward the church. It was close, a few blocks away, so we didn't need to catch the bus. It was still early in the mornin’ so it wasn't too hot out. Momma's legs and feet was botherin' her again so she was walkin' slow. I walked next to her. Grandma walked fast and was about half a block ahead of us.
We got to the church and it was startin' to fill up. Grandma found a seat in the first row and saved space for me and Momma. Momma was sweatin' real bad. She wiped her forehead with a handkerchief. We sat down next to Grandma. Momma wiped her face again.
The organ player was a fat man with a gheri curl. He was smilin' real hard and sweatin' even harder. He was bangin' out the sounds and people was standin' up swayin', wavin' they hands and sayin' "yes, Lord!"
Grandma was tappin' her foot. She had on a small blue hat with lace around it. I had never seen it before and started to wonder where she kept it. It was nice. The choir started singin' and it was like heaven opened right up. The singin' was loud, real loud, and the sound from the speakers on the stage went right through our bodies. We could feel they praise. One young girl in the choir, she was probably my age, started singin' this song, "Oh Happy Day." She let out that voice and the people started shoutin' louder. They was tappin' they feet. Some stood up and shouted, yellin’ for her to go on. A couple people was even dancin' in the aisles. The young girl was usin' her whole body to get the words out. It was like she was vibratin’. I looked over at Momma and it looked like she was cryin'. Although she could have just been sweatin’. She wiped her eyes. Grandma was singin' along. I hadn't heard her sing since I was a real little kid, and I forgot she had a good singin' voice. She sounded real good.
The new pastor of the church came from around back and walked to the podium. He had on a dark gray suit with a bright yellow tie. He was young with a mustache and slicked back hair. The young girl was just finishin’ the song. The people was full of energy and smilin' and cryin' and fannin’ themselves. They was clappin’ and clappin’. The young girl smiled and moved back to her place in the choir.
"Let the church say Amen," the pastor said.
"Amen," the church said.
"God has truly blessed us with the voices of angels. Amen?"
"Amen," the church said.
"Lord said, seek me, and you shall find me. And church, I see some of y’all are seekin’. Amen."
"Yes, Lord," one woman said behind us. I looked back and saw she was wearin’ a big pink hat.
"But church, there are many out there, many sheep, who have strayed from the flock. Amen."
"And church, these sheep, these sheep who have strayed, church, they've found other things to sustain them. They're not sustained by the Word! Church, they're not sustained by the Lord! Amen."
"No church, they have found gangs, and, and drugs. They're not sustained by the risen Christ. Now, now, Jesus said, judge not, lest ye be judged. So church, don't get me wrong today. Don't get me wrong.”
Some people chuckled.
"I don't want to judge the sheep who are grazin’ on the food of gang bangin’ and drugs. No, church. I want to steer these lost sheep back to the flock! I want them to be sustained by the Word of Christ. Can the church say Amen?"
"Amen!" the church said. He went on some more about the evil of gangs and drugs. I thought about some crackheads and boofers in our neighborhood. I wondered if they thought drugs was evil. The preacher went on some more and after a few minutes the choir started singin' again. After hearin’ a song I never heard before, the young girl came back to the front of the stage and started singin' again. "Sinner pleeeeaaaasse!" she called out. It sent chills through the church. Her voice, and those words, sent an energy through everybody. All of a sudden it was like she was a lot older than me, at least like 50 years old, and had a long, hard life. Like she had been through things that grown ups go through. She wasn’t a little kid like me. Not right now. Not while she was singin’ this song. I could feel it. Seemed like everybody else could, too.
“Sinner, pleeeeaaase don’t let this harvest pass,” she sang. “And die and lose your soul at last.”
I looked over at Momma and she was definitely cryin’ this time. But she was also smilin’.
“You okay, Momma?” I asked.
She just nodded. I looked at Grandma and she was just tappin’ her foot with no look on her face.
“See where Christ has died for you and me,” the girl went on. “My God is a mighty man of war.”
She sang some more and it was like the Holy Ghost, whatever the Holy Ghost was, was right there with us. There was so much energy, smilin’, cryin’, dancin’, wavin’ and faintin’. After the song ended everyone clapped. The old woman who was singin’ was now a young girl again, walkin’ back to her place in the choir.
The pastor came back to the stage and preached some more about sinners and acceptin’ them, not judgin’ them. I found a loose thread on my shirt and started to play with it. I didn’t hear much more after that. The preacher said something about contributing to something and they sent the tithing plate around. Grandma looked at me.
We started to get up and one of the ushers gave us a crazy look. Momma and Grandma didn't say nothin'. We walked down the aisle and out the buildin’. We started walkin’ home. Grandma was already a few steps ahead of us.
“Grandma,” I said, tryin’ to get her attention. She didn’t answer.
“Grandma.” She was gettin' further away. She stopped.
“I ain’t got no umbrella, so don't rain on my parade.”
She kept goin’. I looked at Momma and she didn’t say nothin’. She could barely walk herself. Grandma was soon a block ahead of us.
“Want to go to Mickey D’s?” Momma asked.
“Okay,” I said.
We walked the extra block to get Momma’s favorite sandwich. When we got home Grandma had already changed her clothes and put that nice blue hat away somewhere. Momma was in the kitchen unwrappin’ her filet-o-fish.
"I ain't ever seen a fish look like that," Grandma said. She laid in her bed.
I changed my clothes, too, and decided to walk down to Terry’s house. I was feelin’ good after church, energetic, and I didn’t want to sit in the house. I asked Momma if I could leave and she said yes.
I liked goin’ to Terry's house. There was always somethin’ goin’ on. The kids could do whatever they wanted. His momma was never there. They play video games all day. Terry has all the games. Some of the cousins and other kids smoke weed and drink. A lot of the time I just sit on the couch and watch it all. One of Terry's cousin, who was rock solid muscle, Turbo, had just got out of prison so he was livin’ there, too. When I walked in the house he was sittin’ in a chair drinkin’ Hennessey. I saw him lookin’ at me.
“This my cousin, Turbo,” Terry told me.
“Hey,” I said.
“What’s up?” Turbo said.
He was cut up like all he did for those five years in prison was lift weights and eat raw meat. Both was probably true. We went downstairs to the basement like we always did and Terry’s brother and another cousin was down there drinkin’ 40 ounces of beer, smokin’ weed and playin’ Super Mario Brothers.
“Nigga, you ain’t never saved the princess!” Terry’s brother Mike said to his cousin.
“Fuck that bitch. I’m tryin’ to get the high score.”
Terry’s cousin turned up the music and they was blastin’ the D.O.C. All the weed smoke in the air was makin’ me feel woozy. I asked Terry if he had some water.
“Why you want water? Get some Kool-Aid. It’s in the ice box.”
Kool-Aid did sound better than water. The music was loud so we was basically yellin’ at each other.
“Okay,” I said.
“I’ll help you get a cup,” Turbo said. “They kinda hard to find.”
I walked up the stairs from the basement and Turbo was right behind me. Real close to me. I could hear his breathin’. Every step I took, he took one right with me. He got so close I couldn’t only hear his breath, I could feel it. I didn’t like it. I got up the stairs and turned toward the kitchen and he grabbed me.
"I've been tryin’ to get some pussy, but yo’ ass will do just the same."
“What?” I asked. My heart started beatin’ real fast. He yanked me up like a rag doll and drug me down the hall.
“Terry!” I yelled. But the music downstairs was so loud he couldn’t hear me. I tried yellin’ again, louder, but Turbo put his hand over my mouth.
I screamed, but it was muffled by his large hand. He smacked my face. Heat rose on my check and it stung.
"Shut the fuck up!”
I clawed at the walls. A painting of two black panthers, facin’ off on a ledge, fell to the floor as I tried to reach for anything that would stop him from draggin’ me to one of the bedrooms. He was too strong. We got to the bedroom door and I held the doorknob and wouldn't let go. I could see through a crack in the door that there was a messy bed in the room with tan sheets and flat pillows.
"Lil nigga, you gon' make it worse. The more you fight the more I'm gon' wear yo’ ass out!”