The Summer I Lost My Innocence
Isiko Raymond was awarded Third Place in Memoir in the 2015 Prison Writing Contest.
She was alive. I could see the covers move over her shoulder just a little bit. The morning light creeping through the sheer curtains at an odd angle across the bridge of her nose. I wondered if she felt the light on her face. It would be enough to wake me up. But not my mother. It was as if she were fighting against opening her eyes. I would know if someone was looking at me from the door of my room, but she acted like I wasn’t even standing there.
I searched the room for her purse. Usually, it would be in easy sight; I could tiptoe into her room, reach my hand into the soft leather opening, and pull out a one-dollar bill. If it was more than a dollar, I’d drop it back in. She’d miss more than that. Hopefully, it would be a food stamp. She wouldn’t miss that, for sure. But her purse was out of sight.
All summer long, my mom slept late. Ever since my Aunt Paula died and my mom flunked out of the police academy. Tomika still teased me about how my mother would come home from the academy and demonstrate her new choke hold on me. I didn’t mind. We all laughed at the way my mother choked me to the ground and demanded that I give up struggling. I could get out of her hold if I wanted to, but it was fun wrestling with my mother. But this was before my Aunt Paula was run over by a car and was left to die in the street.
I suppose she felt the way I felt when my friend Jeffrey was shot and killed by Susie’s son. He thought Jeffrey stole something from the store and shot him in the back. I didn’t sleep the way my mother was sleeping though. My sister said that she was depressed. She seemed to know more about it than me. Tomika seemed to know more about a lot of things. She paid attention better than I did. She was the one who told me that Paula was standing on the corner when someone sped around the corner and ran her over. She said that Paula was strong and the ambulance people were surprised that she was still alive when they finally arrived. I could understand this. I knew Paula didn’t want to die. She was probably fighting death all the way until she could fight no more.
“What you doing?”
I jumped at the sound of Tomika’s voice. I was so caught up in my own thoughts, I didn’t notice her walking up on me as I stood in my mother’s bedroom door.
“Momma,” she said from beside me before jumping onto the bed and pushing her face close to my mother’s. I couldn’t get away with this the way Tomika could. My mother would have to be in a very good mood for her not to find a reason to send me from her room. I watched as Tomika brushed her yellow hand across my mother’s hair, moving her fingers from her face and through the long dark strands. It was as if they were changing positions and Tomika was now tending to a hurt child. My mother didn’t move under the soft caress.
The doorbell rang. It was probably my friend Bobby, I thought to myself as I walked down the long hallway and past the two beds that were in the living room where Tomika and I slept behind a bamboo partition that divided the large front room. I missed having my own room from when we lived on LaSalle. Since we couldn’t afford to buy the house, we had to move into this duplex, on a busy street, with only one bedroom.
When I opened the door, I was surprised to see Candace standing on the other side of the screen door. She hardly ever came over this early in the morning.
“Hi Raymond.” She smiled through pink lips. Her skin was dark as night in the country, where there were no lights.
“Tomika busy,” I replied without hesitation. I didn’t like Candace. She was fat, black, and teased me that she liked me. Ugh!
“What she doing?” Candace wanted to know, peering around me into the house, cornering her eyes as if she could see more this way.
“I don’t know. She’ll be out when she finished,” I said, and slammed the door in her face.
“Who was that?” Tomika asked, coming from the back, meeting me as I turned into the kitchen.
“Your black friend.”
“You black yourself,” Tomika reminded me, happy that she was yellow, but defending her friend just the same.
“Both y’all ugly,” I responded, more from the anger I was feeling about life in general. The loss of my own room. My mother sleeping late and being depressed. Tomika’s ugly friend always looking at me strangely. Shit just wasn’t the same after we moved off of LaSalle. Plus, I was about to go into high school and I still had my ninth-grade clothes with no prospects for getting new ones. Somehow, my mother had gotten in touch with my father. He had a box of clothes sent. I was happy until I realized they were the cheap pants with patches on the knees. I would be the clown of the school. I couldn’t wear that stuff.
“What’s wrong with you, boy?” my mom asked, joining me in the kitchen. “You better fix your face before it gets stuck that way.”
I didn’t realize I was frowning as I looked into the barely stocked refrigerator. The carton of eggs in it. The pack of bacon looked empty. I knew if I lifted it that I would be disappointed. This was all probably enough for one person. If I were there by myself, I would’ve cooked it but my mother was standing at the sink putting away last night’s dinner plates.
“You ‘bout to cook breakfast, Momma?”
“Me and Tomika are going to visit Shirley in San Bernardino today. You wanna come?” she asked, knowing that I didn’t want to sit in the car for what would be a two-hour drive. Maybe less, but it felt like more than that. Even though Shirley had a pool, it was boring where she lived. My grandfather had an affair with her over 20 years ago and somehow because they had a child together, whom he never acknowledged, Shirley has remained someone to be visited by my mother. She was ugly and I could never understand why my grandfather would fuck her. She was everything my grandmother wasn’t: short, fat, and ugly.
“Nah. That’s okay. Can I cook the rest of this bacon and eggs?”
It was the least she could do, knowing that she and Tomika would eat good somewhere along the way. They always seemed to treat themselves better when I wasn’t around. The evidence was in the bags whenever they returned from their visits together. “Yeah. Go ahead,” she answered finally, sharing this intimate knowledge with me.
I didn’t start cooking until they left, just to make sure Tomika wouldn’t harass me for some of my food, knowing that they would eat better than me and not tell me about it. I made bacon and eggs, drank the last of the orange juice, and ate the last two slices of bread, leaving the hard ends in the plastic bag. I sat at the kitchen table and watched the birds fly across the kitchen window, pretending that I was the man of the house. I suspected that something was happening that would change my life forever and I had no control over it. At least the bacon was crisp, the way that I liked it. The eggs stuck to the bottom of the pan, so most was lost. The butter made the bread tear. The ice cubes I put in the orange juice made it taste like water after they began melting. That’s what I got for being selfish, I heard my mother saying loudly in my ear, even though she was on the freeway somewhere between LA and San Bernardino.
The doorbell rang. It had to be Bobby this time. He usually came to get me so we could go riding our bikes, bunny-hopping over brick walls and onto the hoods of cars. I let the plate, plastic cup, and fork crash into the sink. I didn’t look back to see if the plate cracked or broke in two. This was the nature of my overall displeasure at what I couldn’t yet put my finger on. I felt reckless for some reason. It’s a good thing my mom and Tomika left because that day was one of those days when I would have gotten in trouble. Maybe Tomika and I would have had a fight over something small; probably my fault, and my mother would have come to protect her daughter—and take her anger out on me for Paula’s death.
As it stood, I was by myself to deal with my own teenage issues. If I had thought burning down the house would help, it would have been toast by then. But that nonsense was for white kids. I saw it on the news. Some white kid burned down his own house. When he was asked why, he just said he wanted to see what it looked like. No reason at all. Stupid. White kids are always doing something stupid for no reason at all. At least I would have a reason. Probably because my mother would ask why. At least I could have an answer for her whenever I did something stupid. This was rare but when I did, I would have an answer. Like the time she caught me banging my skateboard against a tree. She asked me why I would do something stupid like that.
I responded that the wheel had stopped turning. Now, that was having a reason for doing something stupid.
It seemed like I was smarter just a year before, but hitting 14 years old must have done something to my brain, because my mother seemed to catch me doing something I wasn’t supposed to be doing a lot lately. She said that I was “getting too big for my britches,” whatever that meant. Probably that I didn’t listen to her all the time like she said. Having to tell me twice to take out the trash made her mad. Not cleaning up the house, too. The more she yelled, the more I acted like I didn’t hear her. This made her even more mad. I know I wasn’t helping matters, but I couldn’t help it.
It wasn’t Bobby. Smiling on the other side of the screen door was Candace. She made me aware of the fact I had on no shirt. My Afro was leaning to the side. I had a pick stuck in the uncombed side. “Tomika gone,” I said, acting like the man of the house. “Didn’t she tell you she was leaving?”
“Where she go?”
“Man. She just gone. That’s all.” There was something in her eyes that kept me from shutting the door. Whatever it was made my dick jump and my eyes move over her body in a way different than all the times before. I was looking for some attraction. She was smiling and her dimples made my eyes soften.
“You here all by yourself?” she asked, looking into the living room behind me before returning her gaze to my already willing eyes.
She had on a pair of tight pink shorts that cuffed at the top of her dark thighs. Her frilly blouse was shaped by her large breasts. “Why?” was all I could manage.
“Let me come in.”
“To show you something.”
“Show me right there,” I said weakly, knowing that I would let her in so she could show me. That probably had something to do with my anger. We moved away from the only serious girlfriend I ever had. She was almost ready to give me some pussy, something I just learned the meaning of right before she became my girlfriend.
“I can’t show you right here. When will Tomika be back?”
“Later on.” Just as I said it I knew that this was her invitation.
“What are you doing here all by yourself?”
I couldn’t even say that I was waiting on Bobby. “What you got to show me?” I opened the screen and watched her walk by me into the living room. She smelled like strawberry Now & Laters.
She waited until I closed the door to smile. Her tongue was red from the candy she must have just finished eating. She began unzipping her shorts. Her eyes were watching me the whole time she pulled them down her legs, pulling her panties along with them. She moved slowly to the living room carpet in front of the couch. “See?” she said, lying on her back and spreading her legs open. She spread her pink pussy apart using two fingers.
I swallowed, my eyes glued to her open legs. My dick stirred. My feet were cemented in place. I couldn’t move. Only my dick jumped against my nylon sweats.
“Put it in,” Candace said, looking down at the tent in my sweats.
She wasn’t ugly to me anymore. She smelled nice. I liked her smile. I reached into my sweats and popped my dick over the elastic as I kneeled over her.
She giggled when the head of my dick rubbed against her pussy. “Take your pants off.”
I didn’t want to be naked. Instead I pulled my sweats and underwear down to my knees and lay on top of Candace as I worked my dick inside of her. She breathed against my neck as it went in. She spread her legs far apart. I slid in with ease. She moved up against me as I moved in and out of her. She felt good. All of my anger vanished for the time I was inside Candace.
The doorbell rang. That must be Bobby. I humped a few more times until I busted a nut. It took a few seconds for me to recover before I jumped and opened the door just a crack. “I’ll be right out,” I yelled through the screen. He looked like he wanted to say something but I shut the door before he could get it out.
“What was you doing in there?” Bobby wanted to know when I came from the side of the house with my bike.
“Nothing. Just had to finish cleaning up,” I responded, looking back to see if Candace followed me at the agreed-upon time interval. She was just walking onto her grandmother’s steps next door when I looked back.
“I seen black Candace come from the side of your house. She was in there with you huh?” Bobby smiled a perfect grin at me.
Bobby put his hand to his mouth and steered his bike with the other. He laughed into it.
“Yeah, she was. Damn. Ray hit black Candace,” he sang, practicing what would become his theme song for the occasion.
“You crazy. I ain’t touch that girl,” I protested as we got closer to the street where our friends were.
“Ray kissed black Candace,” he sang again, perfecting the song.
There was nothing I could do to prevent the coming humiliations.
From the corner, I could see that I would not be spared. Everyone was crowded in Scottie’s front yard. He was older than the rest of us by a few years. He and his sister went to private school. Lonnie, who liked Scottie’s younger sister, who was still older than the rest of us, was trying to hit Scottie. They both wore a pair of giant red boxing gloves.
“Ray kissed black Candace,” Bobby sang as we rode into the yard.
Scottie was the only one who took note. “Hey, Ray,” he greeted me.
Bobby’s plan of humiliation didn’t work. Candace was not part of our group and no one really knew her. The only reason Bobby knew her was because he always came over to my house and knew Candace was visiting her grandmother for the summer. “What’s up Scottie,” I said from my seat on the bike.
Lonnie was trying to show off in front of Loretta, who was sitting on the porch.
“You kissed a girl today?” Scottie asked as he made Lonnie’s head pop back with a punch. He was smiling. No one on this block could beat Scottie. He was far more advanced than all of us in most areas, including money. His family was Catholic. This meant that they had money to go with their light skin color. They had the kind of family where when you turned 18 years old, you didn’t have to leave home. You could go to college and work and still not have to pay rent, and have a new car in the driveway, just like Scottie’s sister had.
“Naw. Bobby just playin’,” I said, cutting my eyes quickly over to Loretta, who was sitting next to a pair of light-skinned girls I knew went to the same school she did. They didn’t look like they belonged around here. It was a secret that I kept to myself that I liked her, too. If she knew that I had kissed Candace it would ruin any chance—though slim—I had with her.
“Don’t be shy,” Scottie urged, ducking out of the way of one of Lonnie’s punches, his tall, lanky frame moving easily to the side with a grin on his face.
“Yeah. Don’t be shy,” Anthony echoed from the feet of Loretta on the bottom step. His fat stomach rolled with the joke.
“You forgot to comb your hair,” Loretta commented.
I took inventory of myself, wondering if she could smell the sex on my body. The Afro pick was still stuck in the uncombed side of my hair, the fist rising into the air. Black Power. I had one foot on the ground as I leaned onto my handlebars. Her high-class friends were looking at me like I was some caged animal who’d escaped the yard. I knew they wanted me, but were just ashamed to admit it.
I could ride my bike to LaSalle but I didn’t feel like it. This neighborhood seemed like it was a world away from the one in which I was raised. Even the people were different. People with money were mixed in with the poor, namely me. Everybody else seemed to have new bikes and new clothes, with new cars and plenty to eat whenever they were hungry. I envied them and I missed the way it used to be for Tomika and me back in our old neighborhood. Here, I was the odd man out, the new one on the block even though I didn’t officially live on the block. There’s a lot to be said for living on the block. They must have felt like I felt when I lived on LaSalle. Like being at home no matter which part of the block I was on. I hated that we had to move. I missed my friends.
“Come on, Ray,” Scottie said, interrupting my thoughts. He was holding the gloves out to me. Lonnie was waiting for me to put them on. I guess he figured he would beat up on me since he couldn’t touch Scottie. Lonnie was the closest in age and size to me. There had been an unsaid battle going on between the two of us ever since I moved into this neighborhood. He didn’t know that I was undefeated in my old neighborhood.
“Yeah, Ray. Put the gloves on,” Loretta sang from between her friends.
I smiled to myself as Scottie came over to sit on my bike. Scottie was the coolest dude I knew, besides Huey from my old neighborhood. They could be the same person from different times and ages. I was glad to let Scottie sit on my bike.
Everyone’s attention was on us as we circled each other on the lawn. No one knew if I could fight. All they knew was that I came over here every day during the summer. I didn’t even go to the same school as everyone else. Even Anthony was in private school with his older sister. Even Bobby and his younger sister went to a special school for smart people. Here I was with my skinny chest bare like I had muscles. Lonnie threw a jab at me that I slept on. It hit me in the chin. He had my attention. Loretta and her friends giggled when my head snapped back.
Now, I was mad because I felt embarrassed.
Lonnie tried to hit me again and I moved to the side and rushed him. I kept swinging until he tripped over the sidewalk into the street. I walked back to the grass, bouncing on my toes like I was Muhammad Ali. I waited for him in the middle of the grass. I could see he was upset. His light skin was turning red and his green eyes narrowed. I’d seen his type before. He wouldn’t be able to control himself because he was angry. I got angry, too, but I learned to control it and direct it at my opponent.
When Lonnie tried to rush me, swinging the big red gloves at my head, I thought of my friend Jeffrey lying in the street after he’d been shot. I ducked under his punches and bounced up quick with an upper cut to his chin. I felt his jaws clamp together when I hit him. They made a loud clapping sound as his head jerked back and his body followed it to the ground.
There was a collective gasp as Lonnie hit the ground like a gallon of milk. His head knocked against the sidewalk at the wheel of my bike. He grunted with the impact. His head rolled to the side. He was unconscious. A jolt of fright shot through me as I stood still, my hands weighted by the heavy boxing gloves down at my side.
“You knocked him out!” Scottie pronounced, tearing me from my stare.
I looked up at Scottie. He had a proud grin on his face. It was only then that I smiled, knowing that I did something that not many people could do. I knocked Lonnie out. My eyes moved across the yard at the various expressions. All eyes were wide with either disbelief or a newfound realization about me. The odd man knocked out one of their own. Even Loretta looked at me differently. Caged animal, indeed.
“Somebody get the water hose!” Scottie commanded from the seat of my bike.
Anthony was glad to jump up and turn the water hose on more than necessary. He jerked the green tube from its spiral sleep as the water gushed from the opening. He gleefully struggled with the water hose until he aimed it right at Lonnie’s sleeping face.
He coughed. “Whaa… wha..?” Lonnie gurgled under the water, moving his face from side to side, trying to escape the cascade of water.
“That’s cool, Ant,” Scottie said, a smile crooked into the corner of his mouth.
Anthony let the water hose hang to his side, making a puddle in the grass at his feet. He watched Lonnie come awake with wonder. We all did. I kept my gloves on, prepared to give him another uppercut in case he was mad. He rose to a sitting position and shook his head from side to side. I wondered if he was trying to shake the water from his ears or the ringing in his head. He never raised his eyes to me as he slowly untied the boxing gloves. Everyone was quiet as Lonnie got to his feet and turned towards the sidewalk. He never looked at me. He started walking towards his house at the other end of the block. We watched him.
“You alright, Lonnie?” Scottie asked to his back.
No answer. He just raised his hand in the air, too embarrassed to look back or say anything.
“Ray knocked Lonnie out,” Bobby echoed with a proud whisper, replacing his earlier theme song about black Candace.
I smiled as Bobby and Anthony bounded towards me, throwing imaginary punches meant to convey their newfound respect and admiration. And to make sure that I would be cool with them, hoping to never be knocked out like Lonnie. They each took a heavy hand in their palms and raised them like I was the champ.
The pace of the cars that passed by at the end of the day, when the sun was going down, seemed faster than when they passed by in the morning. Maybe the people inside were trying to get home at the end of the day. In the morning, they were slow to get to where they needed to go. Wouldn’t it be nice if you really wanted to go where you had to be, I thought to myself as I sat on the porch, wondering when my mother and Tomika would pull up. Didn’t they want to get back home in a hurry? It was fun being at home alone for the day, but it was getting late. I was getting bored and lonely. The house was empty without them there with me.
I sat on the porch watching the cars pass by, claiming the nice ones for my own. When I got older, I saw myself driving the white Cadillac that passed by. There was an old man in the driver’s seat. He had on a fancy hat, with a ribbon around it, like they wore in the movies. I wondered where he was going. His car was the last one in a wave after the light at the corner turned green. He wasn’t in a hurry, like the rest of them, at the end of the day. Maybe his day was just starting and he had to pace himself.
I’d waved to my mother and Tomika when they pulled off, happy to see them leave. Now, I wanted them to return. There was a time limit for them to safely be away without me beginning to worry that they were doing something way more fun than the time I’d given them permitted. They were approaching that time. Now, I was getting jealous like the trick was on me.
“Tomika not home yet?”
Candace shook me from my thoughts. “Naw,” I answered reluctantly, watching her come from her yard into mine, which was separated by a brick walkway that led to the alley behind our houses. She still had on those same pink shorts. I instantly regretted fucking her. I knew she was going to tell my sister and then Tomika would sing the word “nasty” to me until it wore off and lost its power. “Don’t tell nobody what we did,” I instructed Candace as she sat down next to me.
Instead of answering she laughed to herself like this was something she could not commit to. It was too good to keep locked up inside of her. She reserved the right to serve it up when the need arose. Blackmail.
“I’m serious.” I tried to reason with her.
“You ashamed of what we did?” She sounded hurt, but her phrase was meant to make me feel guilty for insulting her.
“Naw. It ain’t that. Just nobody business, that’s all.” I could feel her looking at me, deciding how serious I was.
“It felt good,” she said low, turning her gaze to the street to see what had my attention so much that I wouldn’t look her in the eyes. “Did you like it?”
Now, she wanted to talk about it. Great. “Yeah. It was cool.” Still looking out at the street.
“I can show you something else,” she teased.
I didn’t want to look at her, but I couldn’t help it. Her eyes were brown slits in the dark fold of her face. I never realized before how brown they were. She was looking pretty again with the promise. “What?”
She licked her lips.
“What?” I asked again, hoping she didn’t expect me to kiss her.
“We have to go in the house for me to show you.”
That’s what we ain’t gon’ do, I thought to myself as I shook my head from side to side just to let my body know that this was not going to happen. Sometimes my body had a way of overruling my mind.
“What you shaking your head for?” Candace wanted to know.
“Cuz. My momma gon’ be home in a minute.” I looked to the street, expecting to see her car pull up any minute.
After watching traffic with me for a couple minutes, Candace said, “We can go in the back.”
It was getting dark. The back yard looked different in the shadow of light. We had a garage that I had made into a clubhouse. There was a torn leather chair in front of a table that I’d wiped clean and set up in the middle of the small room. Spider webs hung from the corners and boxes of old clothes. Furniture that came from our old house—that couldn’t fit in this new one—was stacked in the back.
“Tomika never showed me this,” Candace said.
“This is mine, that’s why,” I said, pulling the string on the lone lightbulb that hung from the ceiling. There was nothing to do in here except sit in the chair and put your feet up on the table. It wasn’t like the clubhouse in the back of Karl’s house in my old neighborhood. His was clean. This one still had spiders in it, so I didn’t spend much time in this one. Plus, there was really no one else to share it with me. I’d come here when I had to get away sometimes. Bobby came in here one time, but he got bored real quick. He didn’t even smoke weed, so there was really nothing else to do. I don’t even think he ever had a girlfriend.
“I like it,” Candace said.
I liked her all over again. Maybe I had just never given her a chance. “Yeah. This is my private island,” I said proudly, sitting in the old chair, watching Candace take in the remnants of my family’s former life. We had a big house and I had my own room. “What you got to show me?” I wanted to know, still not wanting to spend too much time alone with her. She might begin to think we were girlfriend and boyfriend or something.
“You ever had a skanoodle?”
“Skanoodle? You don’t know what that is?” she taunted proudly.
I twisted up my lips like that was something that wasn’t worth knowing if I didn’t already know it.
“Want me to show you?” she asked, standing on the other side of the table.
“Yeah. Show me.”
She came around the table and kneeled down in front of me. She looked me in the eyes before reaching for the elastic of my Adidas sweats. Oh. That’s what she’s talking about, I thought to myself as she wrapped her lips around my dick. I grew hard inside of her mouth. My sister was right about Candace. She was nasty, but I wasn’t mad at her. I never realized that Tomika meant this kind of nasty. I thought she just meant eat worms kind of nasty. If I’d known she would suck my dick without me having to buy her anything or spend a lot of time with her, I would have been nicer to her. Maybe it was good that I was mean to her. She was sucking my dick like a champ.
My mother heard me come in through the side door and bump into the washing machine. She called my name from the kitchen. When I appeared in the doorway, she smiled at me. “Where are you coming from, handsome?”
Something strange was going on. Her expression showed relief. It was as if some burden had been lifted from her shoulders, yet there was one last hurdle to overcome.
“Where’s Tomika?” I wanted to know. Under normal conditions she would be in the kitchen with my mother, watching her cook. Pork chops were sizzling in the frying pan, half deep in more pork grease. My stomach tightened with the scent of the food. I was hungry like a wolf after days of searching for food.
My mother’s lips tightened. “Did you hear me ask you a question?” This was not a question.
“I was in the garage.”
“Go wash your hands and get ready to eat. You smell like you been outside playing all day. Run your bath water, too, and get in it right now,” she instructed.
I knew better than to ask another question. I looked for Tomika in the living room when I went to get a clean pair of underwear out of the drawer at the end of the hallway. I looked for her in my mother’ s room when I went to run my bath water. She was nowhere to be found. I sat on the edge of the bathtub as the water filled to a level that I could get into. My mind tried to work out where she could be. I know she wasn’t outside because it was already dark. She must be somewhere safe because my mother didn’t seem too worried about her. Something had to be going on because my mother was cooking only for me. This was rare. Usually when it was only me, she’d heat up some leftovers or bring me back something from Golden Bird Chicken. The grease ran through the bags, but it was still good and oily.
My mother was seated at the table when I came into the kitchen, fresh from my bath. My plate of pork chops, cream corn, and mashed potatoes was in front of the chair opposite her. I sat down and took a sip of my blue Kool-Aid.
My mother smiled as she looked over at me. It was one of those looks of appraisal, the kind you gave a car right before you sold it. Get that last one look. “You’re getting so big,” she complimented. “And handsome. Just like your daddy.”
Something definitely was up. She never mentioned my father unless I was about to be in close proximity to him. The last time she mentioned him was right before she asked if I would like to go live with him, about three months ago. I said yes, like a fool, hoping for something better that only a father could provide. Living in a house with two women was rough. I looked forward to spending time with my father. This was something that most boys I knew couldn’t do because their fathers were either in jail, didn’t care, or were dead. All meant the same thing, though—dead. So, I said yes.
I was back home a week later. I had run away. It was too late for me to suddenly live by rules that clipped my wings. Every day when I came home from school there was something that I got in trouble for. It was always a surprise to me. I guess I could have learned the rules the hard way, but each lesson was becoming harder to bear, especially when my father let my uncle do the punishing. My uncle delighted in finding fault with me and sentencing me to so many swats with a thick paddle—with holes in it so that my skin was absorbed through them with each blow—that even my mother felt the punishment didn’t fit the crime.
She’d asked me why I’d run away when she found me sitting on the porch only one week after I’d left. After school I just took the bus that would drop me off at my mother’s house. I didn’t know I would run away that morning, but when it was time to go back, I just couldn’t do it. So, when she mentioned that I looked just like my father, I was hoping she wasn’t going to suggest that I go live with him again.
“Where’s Tomika?” I asked, to forestall any bad recommendations she might have for me.
“She’s at Shirley’s.”
“When she coming back?”
My mother looked at me as if to say I’m sorry. “She’s going to be living with Shirley for a while.”
I didn’t know what to think. Why, I wanted to ask, but didn’t. Suddenly I felt alone. Anything could happen now. I knew that if Tomika went to live with Shirley that things were going to be different from now on. I scooped some mashed potatoes into my mouth and waited for my mother to say something. I was thinking about the nice house with a pool that Shirley had. Tomika would probably like that. Shirley lived in the kind of neighborhood where you didn’t see kids playing outside, but there was a basketball rim hung on almost every garage over the driveway. It was like one of those neighborhoods you saw on TV where only white people lived.
“Would you like to go live with your grandmother Ruby?” my mother asked from across the table. It really wasn’t a request, but a courtesy so that I could agree. This must have been hard for my mother. Ruby was my father’s mother. Where she lived was rough. All of my uncles had been to jail, even the one who had given me the swats. My father was the only one of six boys who had never gone to jail. Word was that the only time he had gone, he played crazy so they would let him go. They did.
I looked up at my mother. The pain on her face said that there was really no choice in the matter.
“Just for a little while,’” she assured me.
I just nodded my head on my way to pick up a pork chop. It was settled. “When am I?”
The night before, my mother came to my room and sat on the edge of my bed. I couldn’t sleep anyway. She cried as she told me how hard it had been for her since Paula died and she lost her job. She said she was sorry that my sister and I had to live somewhere else. She promised that she would come and get us back just as soon as she could. The room was dark. The only way I knew my mother was crying was because she kept blowing her nose. Her words came out like waves in the ocean. They rolled and dipped with emotion. I just listened. I didn’t want her to hear me say a word because then she would have known that I was crying, too. Not the way she was, just tears running down my face. I’d never before been away from my mother. Even though she yelled at me and I threatened to run away, leaving her for sure hurt like nothing I ever felt before. I knew that promising to be good would not change what was about to happen. Maybe God was punishing me for all those times when I privately wished I could live by myself. Maybe I didn’t tell my mother that I loved her enough. Maybe I wasn’t good enough. There had to be some reason why we couldn’t live together anymore. Some reason why God made it so hard for my mother to keep us together.
“I’m going to miss you baby and I love you so much. I promise that I’m going to come and get both of you as soon as I get back on my feet.”
I didn’t respond to this. It was bigger than anything I could have said.
“You be good now, you hear?” my mother said, breaking me from my thoughts as we turned onto my grandmother’s street. We had to wait for some girls to get out of the middle of the street so we could keep driving. They watched us as we drove past. There were people everywhere up and down the street. I took it all in, trying to remember the faces as we drove to the other end of the block where my grandmother stayed. Shiny cars with sparkling wire rims and phantom tops dotted the street and the driveways of raggedy houses. Boys my age wore new shoes and fresh gear like they weren’t their best clothes. People eyed the car as we passed by from porches and along the street. Across the street from my grandmother’s house were men who looked older than me, dressed in slacks and shiny shirts. One stood out from the rest. He seemed to be the center of attention as he stood on the porch. His hair was long and hung to his shoulders in waves. An old lady was measuring his arm with a piece of cloth. Gold sparkled around his wrists and neck. He reminded me of Huey from my old neighborhood.
“Take that comb out of your hair,” my mother said as we turned into my grandmother’s driveway.
There was a pearl white El Camino parked in the yard. I wondered whom it belonged to. Maybe my Uncle Denmark. He was the youngest of all my uncles, and the only one I knew that wasn’t in jail.
My mother knocked on the front door as I looked across the street to the activity on the porch. The slim man was surrounded by other men who dressed the same way and had the same casual mannerisms. They all dressed like they could be going to church. A brown Cadillac was parked at the curb, with shiny wire rims. There was a cover over the car in the yard. More shiny rims peeked out from underneath. They all seemed happy and smiled with ease.
“Hi, Ruby,” my mother said.
When I turned around, my grandmother was peeking through the window on the side of the door. “Praise the Lord,” she said, after opening the door for us. There she was, just as I remembered. She looked no older than the last time I’d seen her, which was when I was about five years old. I’d come to spend the weekend. The house was full with her kids and grandkids. The military police had come and chased my Uncle Chris up into the attic for leaving his military post. My grandmother wasn’t into the Lord then. She cussed and fussed like a sailor and played rock music that shook the whole house. Everything seemed to be different now. The two-story house was quiet. The living room had brand-new furniture with plastic over it. A picture of a black man was over the fireplace. He was standing in front of a white Rolls-Royce with a white mink coat on. He looked like a movie star staring at me from the wall.
“Raymond. I see you’re getting big. Praise the Lord,” my grandmother said as she led us into the dining room to sit at the table. A Bible was spread open in front of the chair she sat in. Behind her was a space in the wall where a row of pictures stood in frames.
“Thank you for letting Raymond stay with you for a little while,” my mother was saying.
My eyes went from picture to picture. There was one of my uncle who had given me the swats. It was from a long time ago when he was in prison. He stood in front of a chain-link fence with his arms crossed under his huge bare chest. A wool beanie was pulled low to his eyebrows. Next to this picture was one of my father from a long time ago. He had on a pair of Karate pants and no shirt. His leg was high in the air, kicking at something outside of the frame. He looked dangerous. There was a picture of Denmark when he was my age. He was the same color as my grandmother, a dark eggplant color. Everyone else was just a shade lighter than black, some color between mud and midnight.
“Raymond, you hear your grandmother talking to you?” My mother touched me on the arm, bringing my focus back to them.
“How old are you now, child?” my grandmother asked, smiling over at me.
“I’m almost 15,” I replied as politely as I could. The house was too quiet. No music. No TV. No nothing. “Does anybody else live here?” I wanted to know.
“Praise the Lord. It’s just me. Thank God,” Ruby responded with genuine appreciation, masking a hint of loneliness. She struck me as the type who was better at greeting visitors. Her days of taking care of other people were over. I didn’t even smell food cooking.
The silver bracelets on my mother’s slim arm jingled as she moved her arm away from me to clasp her hands together. “Well, let me go,” she sighed, looking over at me, reaching to rub my face. That last look again. “Thank you so much, Ruby,” she said, tumbling back to my grandmother as she rose from the chair.
I led the procession to the front door through the living room and past the three duffel bags of my clothes that were by the front door. My grandmother waited by the open front door as my mother and I walked to the car. She had her arm around my shoulder. She was really leaving me. The realization of this seemed far away all the way up to this moment. She was dropping me off in a foreign land where the rules for living appeared to be different and wild. This world looked to lack order, filled with a wild-west style of doing things. It was populated by extravagant characters with grimy insides and pretty outsides. The air even smelled different. There was no distinction between the heavy exhaust of bus fumes and spilled liquor. These smells lingered and mixed with the aroma of burning cocaine, piss on the sidewalk, melting rubber, fabric softener, fried flour tortillas, and bushels of bananas in an open market.
“You be good now, you hear?” my mother urged me, rubbing her hand across my small Afro. She cupped my chin in her palm and raised my head to look at her. She smiled with an aching pain at the corners of her mouth. Her eyes glazed and a tear escaped from the corner of the filling rim of her lid. “I love you more than anything,” she assured me, taking her hand away from my face to wipe the tear away from her own.
“I love you, too, Momma.”
Her smile widened and her eyes got brighter as she exhaled, finally resolved to detach herself from me, and leave me to this new world where all around people watched the lioness leaving her young cub.
I stood at the edge of the driveway as she backed into the street and turned the car towards the way we came. One last wave with a smile and the words “I love you,” then she was gone. All was quiet until her car turned the corner, then all hell broke loose.
“Motherfucker!! I told yo’ dumb ass!” a lady screamed at the corner. She was swinging her arms wildly at a man dressed in army fatigues. She pinned him against the wall of the laundromat. “Next time I find yo’ ass over here … ” She swung again when he uncovered his head with his arms. “Bring yo’ ass on!” she yelled, snatching at his olive-colored jacket. She dragged him around the corner and out of sight.
“You Den folks?”
I turned to see who was asking me the question. I’d seen him at the end of the street, sitting on a porch, when we drove past. We were the same size, but he had a Jheri curl that was in French braids. His neck was oily from the Jheri curl juice. He reminded me of Jeffrey. He was smiling, a Newport cigarette at the corner of his mouth. The smoke made one of his eyes squint shut.
“Yeah. He my uncle.” I felt poor standing next to him. Everything he had on looked new, but dirty like they’d been worn a day too long. The white inside of his pockets were dirty as if he’d reached his hands into them absently all day long.
“Is that right?” His eyes grew wider than they already were. His young teeth had food in odd crevices and corners. Between puffs of his cigarette he moved his tongue around his gums to dislodge some morsel of grit. “Dat nigga just went around the corner,” he said, blowing smoke into the air.
“Fa real,” I said, looking in the direction of the laundromat. A parking lot separated my grandmother’s house from the laundromat.
“Yeah … He got a bad bitch that he live wit’ around the corner. He hardly ever ova here tho’. You ‘bout to live here?”
“For a little while.”
“Das cool,” he said, looking across the street to where the slim, sharply dressed dude stood on his porch. “Yo’ Uncle Rock be through here prolly today.”
I didn’t know who he was talking about. I just shook my head like I knew though.
“You seen the Rolls?”
“Naw,” I answered, turning to him to see the glee on his face.
“You ain’t seen it?” he shouted, with the satisfaction that he had something to offer. “Cocaine white on white with the blood-red stitch, nigga! Yo’ uncle the fliest nigga around here, nigga. Dem niggas over there can’t even fuck. Dey stay on his nuts. Dey cool tho. Das Money Bags in the middle wit’ the long fly.” He pointed his chin in the direction that I should look.
“Next to him is Puff. He smokin’. Dey let him kick it cuz das Money Bags folks.”
“He smokin’?” I asked, not sure what he meant.
“Like a choochoo.”
I nodded like I got it then.
“The one with the blue shirt on is Dash. Dey call him dat cuz he make the cash and make a dash.”
I smiled at the way he explained it. “What they call you?” I turned to him.
“By my government name. Buck Lloyd.” He smiled.
“Sounds like a cowboy name.”
He shrugged “That’s it.”
“Who’s that fat dude?” I wanted to know. He was leaning against the car cover in the front yard.
“Das Fat Mike. He the muscle.”
“He take care of the dirty work,” Buck clarified. He looked me over good. “Where you used to live at?”
“I been moving around a lot, but I was raised on LaSalle.”
Buck’s eyes exploded. “Serious? That’s where Huey from. You know him?”
How did he know Huey? “Yeah, I know Huey,” I responded, watching Buck jump in front of me with his hands splayed out to his sides waiting for my answer.
“You bullshittin’! He fuck with yo’ Uncle Rock. Nigga! You don’t even know. You folks!” he shouted, grabbing at the front of his baggy jeans.
I was trying to figure out which one of my uncles was Rock.
“Raymond. Come put your stuff away,” my grandmother shouted from the porch. The nice lady that had sat at the table when my mother was here was gone. She watched me as I gave Buck dap.
“Aiight R. Check you out later,” he said, dipping across the street to tell Money Bags and Dash who I was. I felt their eyes on me as my grandmother watched me on my way up the driveway.
This house had a lot of history. As I climbed the dark spiral staircase to the upstairs bedroom my grandmother told me to take, I thought of the rumor about one of my uncles killing himself. They said he had been in bed in one of these rooms—there were three upstairs—and he had put a shotgun under his chin and pulled the trigger—I don’t know which bedroom it was. I couldn’t really ask Grandmother something like that. All the rooms were empty, only furnished with a bed and a pair of nightstands. I took the biggest room, which could really have been two. It led to the back door that led to some stairs that went down the back of the house. I stood on the landing and looked into the backyard. On the other side of the fence there was an apartment building full of Mexicans. They played loud music that I couldn’t understand. Children with smeared faces ran around the small courtyard. Some of the younger ones were naked. A group of older men surrounded a domino table, drinking Budweiser.
Oh! Snap! It hit me. I ran back downstairs and stood in front of the picture over the fireplace. That was Rock! My Uncle Roland. I heard stories about him from when I was little. He was always in prison and I’d never met him. There he was standing in front of the Rolls-Royce Buck was talking about. I was smiling when my grandmother came out of her room.
“You stay away from him.”
I looked at her in wonderment. I guess she felt like she was protecting me from something, the way her tone was. I don’t see how she could have protected me from what she couldn’t protect her own sons from. Especially at the sight of my Uncle Roland wearing a white mink coat standing in front of a Rolls-Royce. I couldn’t wait to see him. “Alright, Grandma,” I said as I moved towards the stairs. I scampered up the wooden steps.
“Don’t run up my stairs!” Ruby yelled after me.
I was at the top looking into the spare front room with the fireplace. There was a balcony that looked out onto the street through a pair of window doors. I walked through them and stood there watching the whole block. I felt like the young prince of a criminal organization. My uncles had come through this neighborhood carving up the concrete, leaving behind them blood and smoke as they careened towards the penitentiary. They left behind hood tales and an established reputation that my mother had up until now been successful at shielding me from. Maybe she knew that for a black boy to survive, this sort of glory had to be kept a secret. Perhaps she was deathly afraid of what these streets would do to me if I was left alone to them. This made her decision to leave me here all the more pressing. It must have hurt her more than I could ever know. Now here I was, a cub in a heartless jungle without his mother or father to protect or guide him.
“What’s up, Nephew?”
I turned around, broken from my thoughts. My Uncle Denmark was standing in the doorway. His hair hung to his shoulders in straight strands. He had on a white Fila nylon sweat suit. Thick gold ropes hung from his slim neck. He looked just like my grandmother, except he had the devil in him, as my mother would say. “What’s up, Uncle Denmark,” I said, looking back quickly down towards the driveway to see how he’d gotten there. Sometimes, I couldn’t see when I started thinking about stuff too much. Sure enough, there was another car in the driveway. It was long and black with shiny chrome rims that looked like large plates. When I turned back there was a shapely woman standing next to him. My eyes were stuck on her. She was light-skinned with long red hair that hung over her shoulders. She had on a matching sweat suit. Thin, gold, feminine necklaces spilled into the deep crease between her huge, soft breasts. “100% Denmark” was tattooed in cursive writing across the top of her left tittie.
“Hi.” She smiled at me with a small wave.
“This my girl Trish,” Denmark introduced us, smiling at my reaction.
“That’s your white car down there?” I wanted to know.
Denmark smiled again. “Yeah. That’s just a toy. Can you drive?”
“Yeah,” I responded hopefully.
“You got a license?”
“Not yet,” I had to answer, deflated.
“Well, when you get a license then we’ll talk about getting you a ride. Ma say you gon’ be staying here for a while.”
“Yeah. My mother s’pose to be getting on her feet.”
Denmark nodded his head like he understood exactly what that meant from seeing it so many times before. “Cool. Here.” He pulled his hand from his pocket wrapped around a fat wad of bills. He snapped the rubber band off and flipped it open like it was a fan. He peeled off a few twenties from the middle and handed them to me. “Stay out of trouble,” he said, before stepping back through the door.
“Nice meeting you, Raymond,” Trish said with a smile.