I reclined on the back two legs of my chair; my foot resting on my desk for balance. I sat in my apartment room, a few weeks of school left before the conclusion of the first semester of my final year of College. Half of my attention was on the Lakers game, the other half was on the phone with my mother. She was beckoning for my attention,
“Yeah ma, I hear you.”
She knew she didn’t have all of it, but that didn’t stop her from talking. Even though I had been away in College for almost five years, she still missed me being around the house. As much as I hated admitting it, I missed her just as much; I was a mama’s boy.
On the television, Kobe Bryant stole the ball and went the length of the court for a tomahawk slam. I pumped my fist in the air; the sudden movement almost made me tip backwards in my chair. My foot slammed into the desk, regaining my balance; the noise caught my mother’s attention.
“What was that?”
“Ummm. I almost fell out my chair.”
Her laughter blended in with the cheers from the crowd. There was a momentary silence before she spoke again.
“You know, your father sent me an email yesterday.”
I leaned forward so all the legs of my chair were touching the floor. My eyes locked onto an empty spot on my wall as I reminisced on childhood memories of my father. I ended the thoughts abruptly,
“Why would dad send you an email and yall live in the same house?”
Confused, she tripped over her response,
“No, I mean your- your umm. Your real dad.”
“Darrel is my real Dad.”
“Your biological Father.”
“Oh, you mean Tyran.”
“Ok. Let’s call him that.”
Since the divorce, I could count on one hand, the times my sister and I saw Tyran. For the last year, he’d call me sporadically or send me a random text message every blue moon. I would respond with a one-word text, or talk to him long enough to know that he was still in good health. I missed him growing up, but at this point in my life, I learned to live without him.
“I guess he thinks you’re trying to shut him out of your life-“
I cut her off,
“Kinda like how he shut me out of his the last 15 years.”
She sat silently on the phone. It was the way she got me to open up to her. She would just sit there and wait for the silence to force the rest of my thoughts out. I gave in.
“I think he just doin this for himself. He was shuttin me out of his, now he getting old and he starting to realize that he spent half of his life without his first son. He aint doin none of this for me.”
“You may be right. He probably is just doing this for himself, but you could be wrong. I think you should just talk to him. It would help more than it would hurt.”
Silence again. The announcer’s words tip-toed through our stillness ,
“And the Lakers are up by 20 with 3:45 left to go in the fourth, in this first game of the regular season.”
“What was in the email?”
“I was reminding your fath- Tyran, about the time when you were just a baby and you almost died of dehydration.”
This was the first time I heard the story.
“The doctors kept having to poke the needle in your little arm because they couldn’t find your vain. I couldn’t stay in the room because I couldn’t stand to see you cry from the pain, but Tyran stayed there with you. When I came back in, you were calm, but when Tyran turned around, all I seen were tears were falling from his eyes. Right then, I knew how much he loved you and how much he cared for you. I just reminded him that the same son he held back then is the son that is here now, 24 years later.”
I sat silently, trying to organize my emotions. I couldn’t do it. I didn’t know how to feel.
“I know you grown now and you can make your own decisions, so all I’m going to say is to just pray about it. I’m sure God will put the right thing to do in your heart.”
My mother was a God-fearing woman, and any advice she was going to give me would be deeply rooted in what the word of God said.
“Aight ma, I’ma pray about.”
“Ok. That’s all I’m askin.”
I put my foot back on the desk and reclined on the back legs of my chair again. I imagined her sitting in the corner of the couch with her legs folded underneath her. That’s how she always sat when she was relaxing on the phone. A lot of times, I would come home and see her asleep on the couch in that same position, the phone resting on her shoulder like she was waiting for a call. She fussed at my little brother before she spoke to me again,
“You still reading and studying?”
“Yeah. I got a math exam tomorrow. I’ma study after the game.”
“I meant reading the Bible and praying.”
I glanced over at the Bible that lay spread open on my desk. It was still on the same chapter in Proverbs I was reading a few weeks ago.
“Yeah, I’m still readin and stuff.”
“Ok. I’m just makin sure. God put it on my heart to ask you that.”
My relationship with God had been up and down since I left for College a few years ago. One second, I’d be head over heels in love with him, the next, I’d have a bottle of liquor in my hand waiting for the first opportunity to lay down with a woman. My flesh and my spirit were in constant battle with each other. At times, I didn’t know who I loved more, myself or God.
“How’s the job search going?”
“I’m looking. Filling out applications, but nobody is calling me back.”
“Oh”-she heard the frustration in my voice- “Well don’t give up. Just have faith that God will provide. All it takes is a little faith, and a little patience.”
I was running thin on both.
Kobe Bryant hit a three-pointer, the crowd cheered.
“Well, I love you dude and call me when you get a chance, ok?”
“Aight mama. I love you too.”
She put the phone back to her ear,
“Do dad know that you and Tyran be sendin emails to each other?”
“Boy, hush. Yo Dad read the emails we sent to each other. You must’ve forgot that I was the faithful one between me and your fath- Tyran.”
“Yeah yeah yeah.”
“You so silly. Have a goodnight, love you.”
“Love you too mama.”
She hung up. I kept my phone in my lap, waiting for her to call right back because of something she forgot to tell me.
I went to a small University in Kenosha, Wisconsin, about 45 minutes away from my home in Milwaukee. The school was in a secluded area, strategically placed amongst acres of trees and state parks. The closest store, a mega wal-mart, was about 10 minutes away. If you didn’t have a vehicle, you were either at a complete loss or at the mercy of a friend. The student body was predominately white, but yet, it was still one of the most diverse schools in Wisconsin. I had been attending predominately white schools since I was in the sixth grade, so by now, it was nothing new to me. I moved in and out of every circle of ethnicities without skipping a beat. The white crowd thought I was cool, the black crowd just called me laid back. My circle of friends ranged from all American white boys, to the hood fellas from off the block. From Athletes to the preps, to the nerds, to the stuck up kids that nobody liked. I found a way to get along with everybody. My best friends were Big Chris and Shahid. We called ourselves, “The Three Squad Clique.” We were going on a four-year friendship together. We were tight like corn rows. If you saw one of us, you knew that the other two weren’t far behind and if one fought, you had to be prepared to fight two more. Over time, we transcended from friends to brothers. Our connections with each other became kinetic. One of us could look at someone and be ready to make a joke about them, and the other two would already be laughing because we knew what was about to be said. We were brothers for real and we fought for each other harder than we fought for ourselves. Three-Squad was in my heart for life.
The announcer concluded the game;
“The Lakers win in an old fashioned blow out, 121-98.”
The doorbell rang just as the announcer finished speaking. I opened the door as a cool winter breeze blew in; Big Chris loomed on the other side. His face a bit rosy from the contact with the cold air. His breath escaped his mouth in a cloud as he spoke,
“Dawg, I forgot my keys on my bed. I was hopin somebody was gone be here.”
“Nigga, you lucky. I was jus about to hit it.”
He ducked his head under the door frame as he walked in.
“Where yo ass was finna go?”
“I was bout to go get somethin to eat.”
“Shit, I’m finna go too. Hold on.”
He dwarfed me as he walked past. Physically, I felt like a child when I was around him. Big Chris was 6’5”, 330lbs; more muscle than fat. His cheeks drooped down on the sides of his face like a bulldog and a few light freckles were scattered across his sandy brown skin.
“My mom said they were kisses from angels”, is what he said when we tried to make fun of them. His wide nose and inflated lips were the dominant features on his baby face. His facial hair grew with a reddish-brown color, camouflage to his complexion. He was from Savannah, Georgia, but his father was in the army, so he moved around a lot when he was growing up. He lived in Kenosha for almost six years now. I’ve known him for four of them. Outside of my best friend in Milwaukee, he was the closest one to me. I went back into my room, watching highlights of the Lakers game until Big Chris was ready to go. He walked in moments later,
“Where’s your gay ass roommate?”
He stood with one hand resting on the frame of the top bunk bed.
“I don’t know where that nigga at. He prolly at the Café’.”
He glanced at the television,
“I see ya boy Kobe snapped today.”
“Yeah. I think he had like 47. They ready this year.”
“I don’t know if they gon take it, but they gon be straight. Bynum coming along nice.”
I got up, put on a hoodie and we left. It was a Friday evening. The campus was desolate. Since the School was so close to home for many students, half of them usually went back home on the weekends to enjoy the comfort of their own domiciles. A few lights from occupied dorm rooms shined distantly through the evening’s approaching darkness. In my mind, I ran through the reasons why those students decided to stay on Campus. I wondered if they didn’t have a family to go home to, if they had a lot of studying or homework to do, or if they just wanted time to themselves. My reason for staying was the latter. I loved being alone, just chilling by myself. It gave me time to write, read and reflect. The weekends at school were the best times for me. I was comfortable in my loneliness. A cool Wisconsin chill gently swept across the campus. The sky was darkening; slowly turning from grey to black. The campus lights lit the pathway for us as we walked toward the Den. The grass glimmered like emeralds from the frost that rested upon it like dew in the morning. We were blanketed by the cold air, our breath became visible as we walked closer to the building. A few white students ran out the door as we opened it. Three white boys with shorts and sandals on were chasing each other. A white girl trailed behind them, walking like a mature older sister. Annoyed, Big Chris spoke,
“Damn crackers with sandals on and it’s damn near 30 degrees.”
He shook his head and we walked through the door. Their actions were nothing new to me. In High School, I’d seen school letters painted on bare chest white boys in twenty degree weather. Either the cold didn’t faze them, or they were too drunk to feel it. Posters of on-campus events and signs urging school spirit lined the hallways as we walked down the stairs.
The Den was an on-campus hang out spot. It housed a small bowling alley, a few arcade style video games, pool tables, foosball, and a 60-inch TV. The food wasn’t that good, but we had become accustomed to it. A few students were scattered sporadically throughout the area. A couple of white kids were submerged in an intense game of pool, two black girls were watching television, passing time until their food order was complete, and a small crowd of students hung around the Street Fighter arcade game. One of the girls watching television smiled and waved towards me, wiggling each finger by itself. I nodded my head in her direction, winking as I smiled. I don’t remember many things about my biological father when I was young, but one thing I remembered was when he told me, “when you like a girl, you gotta wink at her like this.” He has not given me much advice at all, but the few times he has are locked inside my mind and will never find their way out. Big Chris caught a glimpse of our silent interaction,
“Say bruh, you should just give ol’ girl what she want and keep it movin.”
I smiled and let his comment roll off of my mind. For a brief moment, I had control over my flesh.
We approached the counter. On the opposite side, a short, dark-skinned, over-weight black student was waiting to take our orders. He straightened his glasses when we got to the counter. His jaws were puffed and swollen. It looked as if he was hiding armies of gummy bears inside his mouth. His lips were wide, with a slight tent around the edges. His short, wide nose looked as if it was too big for his face. His shirt was tucked sternly into his pants without any slack, illuminating his large belly. His navy blue pants stopped a few inches above his ankles. He didn’t have a friend in the world.
Behind his glasses, his beady eyes switched back and forth between Big Chris and I. His tongue became heavy as he fished for a response. He wanted to sound cool, but he didn’t know how.
“He-hey man. Whas- I mean, whas-whas goin good with yall?”
Big Chris glanced at me while the boy’s eyes were briefly adverted from us; his mouth hung wide open and his eyes bucked. More of a, “what is wrong with this dude?” look than anything else. The boy turned his attention back towards us and caught my response as it left my mouth,
“Nothin man. We chillin.”
I looked over at the menu,
“Let me get a order of chicken strips, some fries, and a sprite.”
“Oh. Aight. Thas whassup. Them chicken strips be real good man.”
He behaved as if not many people spoke to him. He took this opportunity to let words out that may have went unspoken for days. He continued,
“Yeah. Students be comin in here orderin em all the time. I be like, ‘dang, these strips must be real good.”
His shirt was tucked tight around his belly. He smiled the whole time.
“Thas all you want?”
“Aight man. Thas umm. Thas gon be umm, 7-oh, my bad man, I mean $6.46. I forgot to give you the student discount.”
I took the last $10.00 bill out of my pocket and handed him the money. He turned to get my change. Big Chris gave me the same look as before, but this time, he held it a little longer. The girls who were sitting on the couch eased their way to the counter and stood on the side of us. One of them sucked their teeth as she spoke to the over-weight student behind the counter,
“Excuse me, our food aint done yet?”,
As she spoke, she pointed to the back room where the stove was at. Fixing his glasses, the boy turned back around to give me my change.
“Oh yeah. I’m-I’m sorry. It should be done now.”
He went to the back to get their food, the bottom of his pant legs kissing his ankles. They snickered as he scurried away. Ashley, the girl who waved at me, was a pretty, light-skinned girl. Her father was white and he spoiled her rotten. She was, “princess”, and she didn’t let anyone tell her anything different. She wasn’t stuck up, she just never settled for less than what she thought she should have. Physically, her shape didn’t stand out much, but she still had something to look at. Her long, curly brown hair tap-danced across her neck; her grey eyes were enough to draw any man into her world.
“So”, she looked me up and down, “you stayin up here this weekend?”
One dimple engulfed her cheek as she smiled,
“Me too. My roommate went home this weekend, so I’m just gone be in my room…chillin.”
Big Chris stood by me, pretending like he was reading the menu, a feeble attempt to hide the truth.
“Aight. Thas cool.”
I didn’t give her the response she wanted. She spoke again,
“Well, you already got my number. If you get bored or something, jus holla at me. We can watch a movie or something.”
“Or let the movie watch yall”,
her friend spoke in a whisper, but it was loud enough for me to hear. She wanted me to hear it. They both smiled, Big Chris turned his head away from us to hide his grin, his cheeks jiggled from the sudden movement. I felt like we were all in middle school again. The friend-less student came back to us with their food in his hands. He slid it on the counter in front of them, begging for a little bit of the attention. They gave him none.
“Aight Tyrell. I hope I hear from you this weekend.”
“Yeah. You probably will.”
They walked away, jeans hugging every curve on their bodies. Big Chris spoke again when they were out of sight,
“Dawg, please tell me you gone knock her down. Please tell me dawg, she practically just handed it to you on a platter.”
For the moment, I still had control over my flesh,
“I don’t know bro. I’m just chilling. Flirting. Plus, I think Renita still up here this weekend too.”
“You ol faithful ass nigga. Well damn, the least you can do is hook me up with her friend. She aint that cute, but she thick as hell.”
I laughed. The student behind the counter laughed too, he wanted to feel included. Big Chris ordered, we got our food and left. The dark, cold Wisconsin air had completely set in. The lights from dorm rooms shined bright in the distant darkness. The campus lights lit our path once again. During our walk back to the apartment, we passed Keyondra and Jevon. Keyondra was a close friend of mine, and if it wasn’t for a few kisses that almost lead to something else, she would’ve been viewed as a sister. Jevon was her best friend. They smiled and waved as we walked past each other. Big Chris was stuffing fries in his mouth and trying to talk at the same time. His voice was muffled, but I still knew what he was saying. I responded,
“Nah man. We just friends. I aint do nothing with her. We just friends.”
A few more muffled words escaped his full mouth. Pieces of fries fell from his lips and onto his gold boots.
“Nah, if I did, I would have told you.”
The night was clear. The stars were twinkling in the sky simultaneously like they were in a battle to see who could shine the brightest. I thought about the nights like this when Keyondra and I sat in the grass, on top of covers chilling, tracing constellations with our fingers and talking and joking until the wee hours of the next morning. I daydreamed about us being together, what it would’ve been like if she got pregnant, how well she would get along with my mother and what it would be like if we eventually got married. The cool air blew against my face, but my mind was too busy thinking to tell my body that it was cold. Big Chris’s voice broke me out of my daydream,
“Dawg, you gotta open the door again. I keep leavin my damn keys.”
It was my first day home from College on winter vacation. The last beams of sunlight skipped across bare tree branches as the cold Milwaukee abused anything that stood outside. My little brother stood by the door, patiently waiting for me to open it.
His 7 year-old voice went through my ears and straight to my heart. His smile was ear to ear. He grabbed me around my waist and I cupped the back of his head with my hand and kissed him on his forehead.
His smile never left his face. Mama came into the room just as Pooter and I released each other.
“Hey dude! Come give me a hug.”
I let my book bag fall to the floor and walked into my mom’s outstretched arms. I felt the love she had for me before we even made contact. We released each other, the love lingered in the air like a strong fragrance.
“He is still at work. He should be on his way home now.”
I looked around the house; it looked the same way it did when I left a few months back. The kitchen table was cluttered with my mom’s business papers, my dad’s videos, and a few other random items. In the bathroom, my dad’s clippers were laying on the side of the sink next to a few hair clippings. He must have shaved right before he left. The same magazines were on the rack next to the toilet; God’s Ink, Annointed pages, A Joyce Meyer publication, a couple of Essence magazines with Bill Cosby and Will Smith on the covers, and Slam, a basketball magazine that I always kept in there. The garbage was beginning to overflow, so I pushed my foot inside of it to mash it down. The dining room had less clutter. One chocolate brown couch sat in front of the large front room window. The couch matched the carpet perfectly. A love seat was kiddy corner to the couch. A glass table with wood frame sat in the middle of the room. I thought about the times I had to go over the glass continually with Windex and Paper towels to make sure there were no spots or streaks left. Mama wanted everything perfect, “if you gone clean the room, clean it right.” My sisters High School and College graduation pictures hung on the side of each other, my High School picture was next to hers. Pooter would have a decade or so to go before his picture could dawn the wall of fame. The television was to the left of the winding stairs that lead up to the bedrooms. Everything was still the same.
I walked down to my room in the basement to relax for a little while. Pooter was halfway down the stairs, walking behind me step for step before mama told him to leave me alone so I could rest. He put his head down and walked slowly back up the stairs. I saw his puppy dog eyes and tried to console him the best I could,
“Pooter, when I get up, I’ll take you to the penny candy store and play video games with you, ok?“
The smile he had when I walked through the door re-appeared instantly,
Pooter could smother you with his presence if you let him, but that‘s how he always was whenever I came home from school. I was his big brother and I loved him like he was my own son. I dropped my bags on the floor in my room and laid across my bed. I was sleep within a matter of minutes. When I re-opened my eyes, the house was silent and my room was pitch black. I grabbed my cell phone to give myself a little bit of light. The time flashed on the face of it; 3:38 Am. I listened to the voicemails from missed calls; the first one was from Keyondra;
“Whassup Rell. I was just callin to see what was up wit you. I’m really lookin forward to spending time with you on this break. I hope you don’t play me cuz you know how niggas get when they get back with they girl. I hope that’s not you though cuz you real cool and I would hate to lose our friendship. Call me when you get some time or whatever, aight.”
Renita and I had an off and on relationship for the past year and a half. During one of our off times, Keyondra and I became friends. We’ve known each other since the beginning of the fall semester. She came in and filled the void that Renita left. Renita left the next message:
“Hey bay. I’m back at home and I was just callin to see if you made it in ok. Call me when you get a chance.”
I called her back even though I knew she would be sleep.
“Whassup baby. I just woke up. I went to sleep as soon as I came back home. I still got on my clothes and everything. I’m bout to go back to sleep. I just saw that you called so I wanted to call you back. Ima talk to you tomorrow. Goodnite and I love you.”
I slid my phone to the side and re-positioned myself back in my bed. I was back to sleep in moments.
* * * * * * * *
Pooter kneeled at the side of my bed; his face was inches from mine. I could feel his breath on my nose. He startled me when I opened my eyes, so I jumped away from him. He flinched, then smiled. His voice slipped into my conscious,
“Goodmornin Rell, you hungry?”
I rubbed my eyes a few times and yawned as I answered,
“Mamuh said come and get somethin to eat.”
“Mamuh said come eat some food!”
I paused for a minute, looking around the room like I was in unfamiliar territory.
“Ok pooter, ima be up there.”
He was soaked in the scent of mama’s breakfast and when he left, the smell lingered in the air; bacon, eggs, sausage and those “just add water” pancakes that she bought from Sam’s Club. Mama usually cooked breakfast when she had the time to, like when she had a day off from work or something. I hadn’t had a home-cooked breakfast in weeks. I’d been living off of cereal, Ihop, and whatever else the School had to offer for breakfast, so I was past due for whatever she had. I stayed in my bed long enough to gather my thoughts. I felt my covers around me. The sheets were damp with sweat. I rolled out of bed, reached into my drawer and put on a fresh wife beater. It squeezed my chest and showed off the semester I spent lifting weights in the gym. Before I walked out of my room, I looked back at the damp sheets as brief recollections of last night’s dreams flashed in, and out of mind. I turned and walked out.
The basement was laced with sky-blue carpet that your feet sunk right into. I never wore shoes when I was down there because the cloud-like carpet felt better on my feet than anything else. I had my own little living room; a TV connected to a satellite dish that had over 800 channels, two powder-blue couches, a small table and a stereo system that my dad hooked up to the TV to give the basement a bootleg surround sound system. My dad was a sound technician, so he found a way for every room in the house to have some type of surround sound. There was a Spongebob blow-up chair against the corner of the wall that pooter used to watch endless hours of Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network on Saturday mornings. I couldn’t count the number of times he woke me up out of my sleep laughing. I walked across the soft blue surface and heard pooter’s voice from upstairs.
“Mamuh, can I have some orange juice?”
“Yes baby… and did you tell your brother to come eat?”
“Yeah, I told him… but he still didn’t get up yet.”
I knew he would be on his way back down to wake me up again, so I crept up the basement stairs with intentions of scaring him as soon as he opened the door. I had to maneuver my way up the wooden stairs to keep them from creeking. I’ve done it many times before, so I knew exactly where to step to avoid making any noises. While holding on to the banister, and with one foot on each side of the stair, I could walk up un-detected in about 13 seconds. I stood at the top stair, in complete silence, as I began to recollect parts of last night’s dream.
“So, you here now.”
I looked at the figure, flames flickering around him. He was an outline; a shadow, a silhouette. I dropped my head down sorrowfully.
“I can’t be.”
“Yes son, you are home now. Your work has paid off.”
The figure sat back in its chair and folded it’s right leg over its left knee. He sat like a man of importance. I felt an indescribable evil surrounding him. I wanted to get on my knees and pray to God because I felt like his love was the only thing that could over come this type of evil. He kept talking,
“I gave you everything you wanted. I gave you money. I gave you women. I gave you everything, now you owe me.”
His devilish smile pierced my heart as he pressed the tips of his fingers together, his bronze teeth glimmering from the flicker of the flames. I was unsure of what I did, but I owed this figure something more valuable than my life. I began to sweat like I was bordered by electric heaters. The hairs on my body began to singe and I yelled,
“Please God, have mercy on me!”
The figure let out a sinster laugh,
“God? I am your God now. You are mine for eternity.”
I looked down and I had chains on my feet. The heat was more concentrated. The room was getting hotter. I felt like I was inside an oven as the figure began fading away; his sinister laughter echoed like voices in an auditorium. The intense heat evaporated my tears before they had a chance to fall off my face. I cried and there were no tears to show my pain.
Pooter opened the door and snapped me out of my daydream. I was at the top stair, frozen, my face turned to stone. I wanted to say “rawr!” and jump at him, but the recollections of my dream paralyzed me, and at the moment, I was stock-still.
“Rell, whas wrong?”,
Pooter looked at me quizzically; my blank stare mirrored onto his face. It took me a few seconds to bring my mind back to reality.
“Nothing, im jus hungry…and you in my way so I’m bout to eat you!!”
I grabbed him and pretended to bite his arm.
“Stop! Stop! You can’t eat a little brother, you gotta eat food!”
Mom heard the noise we were making and yelled at us to stop playing in her house. Pooter voiced his innocence before I could say anything,
“Mama, he started it.”
I responded to pooter’s plea of innocence,
“No I didn’t start it!”
“Yes he did mama…he grabbed me and-“
Mom interrupted us,
“Alright, I don’t care… yall just come in here and eat.”
Pooter put his head down, walked to his chair and sat down as he said to me in a whisper which was almost as loud as his normal voice, “see, you got us in trouble.” I walked towards my mother and continued the good morning hug and kiss ritual that started way back on my first day of school.
“Tyrell, I can’t believe you be goin back and forth with him like that…you are-“
I cut her off,
“22 years old.”
She always reminded me of how old I was when I did childish things, even though she had her days of playing copycat or some other juvenile game with me. Her excuse for doing anything I couldn’t do was that she was “The Mama.” It had been the same way since my sister and I was younger. We would plead unfairness to her, “But mama, why can you do it and we cant?” and her response was always, “because, IM THE MAMA!!…and stop askin me questions!” After she said that, we felt like no one, not even God himself, would dare to ask mama anything else. She was only 5’4, but her small stature didn’t mean anything because she spent the first 15 years of our lives displaying the wrath of a single mother on us. During my days of elementary school, I developed the fear that if my sister or I ever, at any point in our lives, decided to disrespect her in any way, she would end our lives as quickly as they came. After we were a little older and were able to withstand a belt whooping, she used other methods. Mama was real quick with her hands. She’d hit you twice before you would even think to block. I saw my sister get smacked up a couple times by her and that was enough for me to know not to test her. I had the self-conscious ability to learn from other people’s mistakes. She handed me my plate from the stove seconds after we released each other from our hug.
“Thanks ma…uh… these not Granma pancakes, are they?”
“No they not…why? You don’t want em no more?”
I paused and looked around the kitchen,
“yeah, I’ll eat em.”
She smiled and reached for my plate,
“Naw, give me my pancakes back and call yo grandma!”
“Mama naw, ima eat em, ima eat em!”
“Oh, what-ever. Get out of here yo ol’ jug head boy!”
Pooter snickered in the background. Mom followed me to the table with her plate in her hand. I sparked up a conversation after we sat down.
“Ma, I didn’t know you had the day off.”
“I didn’t… yo lil brother call himself getting sick this morning, so I had to stay home with him.”
I paused and looked at Pooter. His wide, almond colored eyes stared back at me.
“I coulda stayed wit em.”
“Yeah, and did what? Let him play video games all day?”
I started laughing because she was right. Whenever Pooter stayed home with me he ended up doin one of two things: playing video games until he got sick, or watching cartoons all day, occasionally coming up for air to say, “Rell, im hungry.” I was the type of baby-sitter that every child wanted. “Do whatever you want to as long as you don’t break nothing, hurt yourself, or get on my nerves.” Pooter was my heart. I would allow myself to die twice before a hair on his head was harmed. I remember over-hearing a conversation between my mother and one of her friends. My mom’s friend said, “all of your children are blessed, but it’s just something about your boys.” All my mom did was smile and agree. She knew it was just something about her boys too. She knew we were two of a kind. Just then, I felt a kick under the table. Pooter was in one of his playful moods.
“Why you kick me?”
With a wide grin on his face and syrup escaping the corners of his mouth, he replied,
“It wasn’t me, it was Tila.”
Tila is our older Sister. Her real name is TaLisha, but Pooter changed her name when he was about two. He couldn’t say Talisha, so in his best attempt at saying her name, he would come up with Tila. That name stuck with everybody in the family. Even some of her friends started calling her that. I laughed when he said it was Tila because she didn’t even live at home anymore.
“Oh, that was Tila huh?”
Pooter put his head down and continued eating his pancakes, trying to cover up the kool-aid smile he had on his face. I directed my attention back towards my mama and caught her stealing a piece of bacon off my plate.
“Mama, you want me to get you some more bacon?”
“No, your piece just looked better than mine so I wanted it”
I pulled my plate a little closer to me the way a sheltered white woman would clench her purse when she’s in the presence of a black man. I took that moment to cash in on a stereotype,
“Stealin. You black people are all alike.”
She laughed and playfully tapped my hand, mocking what she used to do to me when I was younger. I took a drink of orange juice before I spoke again,
“What you doin today?”
“Nothing, takin care of yo little brother, why?”
“I was jus askin.”
“Oh… What you doin?”
“Uhhh…Nothin. Where dad at?”
“He at the church getting it set up for Sunday.”
My dad was the sound technitian at our church, the janitor, a teacher, and if you caught him behind closed doors, he could sing with the best of them. He never stopped working hard to provide for the family; I admired him for that. I grabbed the syrup off the table and drowned my pancakes, eggs, and everything else on my plate with it. I would have kept goin if my mama didn’t grab the bottle out of my hand.
“Boy, thas enough syrup! I just bought that battle and it’s almost half gone!”
I smiled, “Mama, I’ll buy you another bottle.”
“Boy please, you aint got no money.”
I laughed because she was right, but on the inside, it hurt that I didn’t even have enough money to buy a bottle of syrup. After we ate, I helped my mom clean up the table and wash the few dishes that we used.
“How you feelin ma?”
“I’m okay, how about you?
“How are things with you and Renita?”
I looked at her and gave her a crescent smile.
“Things are alright, I guess.”
“Yeah. I mean, sometimes, it just doesn’t feel right between us. I just can’t explain it though.”
“You don’t need to explain it. Obviously, you’re having those feelings for a reason. Did you pray about it?”
I passed her a few dishes, soap suds were dripping off her hands.
“Nah, not really.”
“Just pray about it then. Im sure God will tell you anything you need to know if you are willing to listen and accept his answers.”
Godly advice was always on the tip of her tongue. She looked at me as I handed her one of the skillets off of the stove. It was obvious that Pooters wide, round eyes came from her.
“What you doin later?”
I hesitated to respond,
She flung dish water around in the sink while she answered me,
“Because, me, Pooter, and your dad are going watch a movie later with Tila and her boyfriend. I wanted you to watch it and hang out with us. You know, spend some time with us before you start kickin it with yo friends. Unless you getting to old to hang wit’ yo mama.”
She smiled as the sun peaked through the kitchen blinds and shined on the thick, dark hair that hung just above her shoulders. I didn’t know if she was tryin to make me feel guilty, but if she was, it was starting to work.
“What time yall gon watch it?”
“Well, you’re dad should be home at 5, so probably around 9?”
”Ok…I might be back by then.”
“You might be back? Where you goin?”
I smiled wide enough to show my teeth,
“Mama, I’m grown, don’t worry bout it.”
She pushed her eyebrows up into her forehead, shocked at what I just said,
“Boy, don’t play with me. I will back hand you right now.”
She moved her arm like she was about to hit me. I grabbed her sud-filled hand before she could move it close to me. I laughed,
“Ok, mama, ok, I was just playin.”
Her enjoyment was displayed moments after mine.
“I was prolly gon go to Renita house for a lil while.”
“Oh. You know you can bring her by here with you, right?”
“Yeah. I’ma see what she doin later.”
I didn’t know if she would come or not. The water ran silently for a few moments as she rinsed and I dried.
“Ma, do you like Renita? I mean like, do you think she is good for me?”
I could tell she was happy that I was aking her about what she thought of Renita. I think every parent wants their child to take heed to their advice about relationships. But even with that, I still don’t think she realized how much I valued her insight.
“She nice from what I’ve seen of her. She’s real pretty, but I really don’t know her enough to say if she’s right for you or not.”
She probed me a little more,
“Why you asking? Do you think she’s right for you?”
“I don’t know. Sometimes, it’s real good between us, but sometimes, I just don’t be feelin her.”
“How long yall been together?”
“About five months.”
“Oh…well that’s really not a long time. But if you havin these feelings now, its probably for a reason.”
She ran dish water over the last few pieces of silverware and turned the water off.
“Rell, you know I have always prayed that you, pooter and your sister to have the divine wives and husbands that God has for you and nothing less. So maybe she’s just not for you, but I don’t know. That’s something you just have to pray about. But I’ll tell you what I think. You know us mothers got that sixth sense about they children, so you know I’ll let you know if I feel something bad about her.”
“Make sure you do.”
“You know I will. I gotta look out for my son!”
She smiled and looked me in the eyes like she was scanning my mind for anything else I wanted to tell her. After she couldn’t find anything, she turned towards the kitchen television to catch “One life to live”, her favorite soap opra. I kissed her on the cheek before I went down to the basement. Pooter sat in the kitchen with her, playing with some toys he snuck down from his room. Usually, mama wouldn’t let Pooter play with his toys in the kitchen, but he knew he could get away with murder when she was watchin her soaps. She told me that watching soaps sometimes allowed her to not worry about the problems in her life. It was kind of like an alcholic using liquor to momentarily take their pain away. She sat in the kitchen and hung off of every word that the actors said. It was like she was hypnotized by the voices of the characters, but as soon as a commercial came on, she snapped out of her abstraction.
“Pooter, you betta get all these toys outta my kitchen!”
* * * *
I came into my room and rested on my bed for a while. The coolness of my comforter sent a pleasant, relaxing chill throughout my body. I pressed play on my stereo. Common’s lyrics bounced off the walls of my room, “I met this girl when I was ten years old…” I glanced at the pictures I had hanging on my walls. A magazine cut out of Pippen helping Bone off the court when he had the flu and still dropped 45, a few pictures of Shaq and Kobe before the Heat got between em, Tmac, A.I., a picture of Nas in the Source when they gave him 5 mics for Stillmatic, a black and white photo of Shyne and his pit bull right before he went to prison, and pictures of various female models and actors. My favorite though, a magazine cut out of Tamala Jones. If it wasn’t for Renita, I would move to Atlanta for the sole purpose of finding her. I heard my door slowly crack open and it broke me out of the daydream I was having of me and Tamala’s wedding. It was Pooter. I turned off the music as soon as I knew it was him,
“Rell, what you doin?”
“Nothin muscle-head. Whassup?”
“Nothin. Whas that?”
He lifted his index finger in the air towards a spot behind me. I turned to where his finger was aiming, and not even a second later, I felt the sting of a nerf ball connecting with the back of my head. I got up to chase him, but he was almost at the top stair before I could even get to the first. I went back in my room, sat down on my bed, and turned the music back on while I heard the pitter-patter of little feet running up the next flight of stairs. I smiled. I thought back to my childhood years. The times I didn’t have to worry about money, or living in general. All I had to do was play, clean my room, stay out of trouble and get up on Sunday morning to go to church. The only one that gave me trouble was getting up on Sunday mornings. My sister and I always used to scheme up ways to miss church, but one morning, it backfired on me. I can remember the life threatening experience like it was yesterday…
“Rell, get up! Time for church!”
Mama left my room and came back again some minutes later.
“Rell, I’m not gon tell you again, GET. UP!”
I thought I was playing the best version of possum I had ever played; I didn’t move or make a sound. I figured I could play sleep until right before we had to go to Church. That way, she would have to decide between being late, or leaving me home for church. I thought I had her fooled until she came back in my room the third time, only this time, she didn’t say a word; she just pulled back my covers and gave me one of the worst beatings of my life. It felt like she was beating me for every time I ever played possum with her. Everything was in slow motion, from the time the covers were pulled back, to the last swing. I could count the seconds before the belt came in contact with my body, but in real-motion, my mom was snapping the belt through the air at the speed of light. I put my hands out to protect myself, but when the belt hit my knuckles, it hurt worse than when it hit my behind. I screamed, “Mama, I was sleep!”, pleading with her to stop. She spoke to me like the belt was making the beat for her words. “NO (pow!) YOU (pow!) WERE (pow!) NOT (pow!) SLEEP (pow!) WERE (pow!) YOU (pow!).” I didn’t want to answer her because the more she talked the more I got hit, so I just screamed bloody murder. I could see my sister peering in my room with terror in her big, light brown eyes. Her mouth hanging wide open like she wanted to yell and tell my mom to stop, but the words were caught in her throat. She probably thought she was about to kill me because God knew I thought my life was going to end that morning. As soon as my mom was done whooping me, my sister ran down the hallway to her room in fear that she would be next. With Heaven still in my mother’s eyes, she said,
“Now go get yo butt in the shower before you have me late for Church!”
I limped into the bathroom like a wounded soldier while every part of my lower body had a red-hot, burning sensation. I scratched at my leg, but it was numb from the beating, and the shower didn’t make anything better. Needless to say, I never played possum from church again.
The way she raised Pooter was no different from when she raised us. He went to church every Sunday dressed in suits like I did when I was his age. He sung in the children’s choir and knew the order of every book in the Old Testament. My mom taught me the books of the Bible when I was about 7 or 8, and because of that, now when I’m in church, I can make it to a book and chapter faster than most ministers. My sister and I were “raised in the church”, so we always knew about God and how good he was. I made an effort to pray to God at least once a day, but sometimes, I don’t even squeeze that in. I bowed my head and got on my knees. It’s hard for me to talk to God because he always knows what I’m going to say before I say it, but sometimes, that’s a good thing.
“God, I just want to thank you for everything you’ve done for me. Thank you for blessing me with a lovin family and givin me a heart to want to do right. I thank you for never leaving me even when I did things I know I shouldn’t have done. If I was you, I would’ve been given up on me, but I’m glad that I’m not you. I thank you for every blessing you have given me and I pray that you will help me use your talents in a way that will glorify you. I know I’m not where I need to be right now in my life Lord, but I pray that with your grace and mercy, I will be completed. There are so many things right now that I’m dealing with. This money issue, me not bein able to let go of some things this world has to offer, lust. My relationship with renita is startin’ to go bad a lil bit and it seems like my mom likes her. That’s probably the hardest part for me because I didn’t want to bring anyone home to her unless I knew that we would be together for a while. I don’t want to disappoint her, but what else can I do? Our relationship is causin a lot of stress. I don’t think you want me to be with her, but I have just got so comfortable around her and it’s like she has control over me emotionally. Like I’m bein forced to choose between you and her, and I know in my soul what I need to do, but my heart just won’t let me. I don’t know God, but I’m scared to trust you. I’m scared that things are not going to go the way I want it to go, and now that I said that, I do sound a little selfish. God, I pray that you will just help me deny myself and my worldly wants in order to walk with you. Your word says ‘those who loose their lives for my sake will gain it in Heaven, and those who try to hold on to it will surely loose it’ and God, I don’t wanna loose my life. I don’t wanna die and go to hell and I know you have a plan for my life, I know it. I pray that you use me the way you intended to and that you help me break the shackles this world has on me. God, I need you and I can’t live without you. Help me, please. In Jesus name I pray, Amen”
My phone rang. It was my brother, Javaar. I called him “JV” for short.
“Whassup dawg? Where you at?”
“Im at the crib, whas good?”
“Are you busy?”
“Nah, why? Whassup?”
“I need to holla at you about something.”
“Nah man, it aint. I don’t wanna talk about it on the phone though. What you gotta do today?”
“I aint got nothin to do. You want me to stop through?”
“Yeah dawg, can you?”
“Yeah, I’ll be there in a minute, I gotta get dressed first.”
“Aight pimpin, jus hollat me and let me know when you on yo way.”
Javaar’s family grew up with mine, so we’ve been knowin each other since we were children. He was one of those friends you’ve known for so long that they just kind of transform from “friend” to “brother.” His mom and dad called me “son” and my parents called him the same thing. Besides Big Chris and Shahid, he was my closest friend; the one I’ve known for the longest. We rode together, and if push came to shove, we would die together. It was just that simple. I got dressed and went up-stairs to look for mama so I could tell her I was leaving. The kitchen was vacant and so was the living room. I yelled up the next flight of stairs to her room, “maaaaaaamuuuuuuuh.”
The only thing I heard was Pooter’s distant laughter and vague sounds from his television.
I walked upstairs. My mother was in her room, sleeping peacefully on top of her covers. She hadn’t started snoring yet, so I knew she wasn’t deep into it. She probably just dozed off. I walked over to her motionless body and waited to see her stomach move up and down to assure myself that she was alive. When mama was sleep, she would be so still that I’d be scared she was dead, so I’d stop and stare at her stomach just to make sure it was still moving. It was something I’d done since I was a child. After I saw her stomach move a couple of times, I put a blanket over her, kissed her on the cheek and left her room. Pooter’s room was right down the hallway from hers, kiddie corner to Talisha’s old room. His almond colored eyes were glued to his television set. He didn’t even know I was standing in the doorway. I walked in while he was watching Jimmy Nuetron, one of the many cartoons he had hooked me on.
“I’ll be back later Pooter.”
He didn’t hear me. Trying to talk to him while he was watching cartoons was like talking to a stuffed animal. He was so focused on catching every funny thing in the show that he tuned everything else out. He reminded me of mama when she was watching her soaps.
“I’ma be back later.”
He turned towards me for a second, then back to the television.
“Can I go with you?”
I loved when he wanted to hang around me. It made me really feel like a big brother.
“Nah, not this time Pooter.”
He turned back towards me and put his head down. His puppy dog eyes were seconds away from appearing.
“Because, I have to handle grown-up business.”
He lifted his head as if he was just given another chance at life,
“But I’m almost a grown up.”
I told him to get out his bed and stand by me. I put my hand a few inches above his head.
“You have to be at least this tall to be a grown up.”
He stood on his tip toes trying to add a couple inches to his height. I raised my hand a little higher. He laughed.
“You cheatin, you moved your hand!”
“You cheeting too!”
I stopped the small dispute before it had the opportunity to grow into something else,
“I know, but you can’t go with me this time. I’ll bring you some penny candy back home when I come, ok?”
He paused, as if he was thinking about the bag full of candy that he would have later.
“When you gon be back?”
“In a little while.”
“Ok. Bring a whole bunch so you can have some too. And get a bunch of the red and the blue ones, ok?”
“Aight, I got you. And don’t open the door for anybody you don’t know and be quiet cuz if you wake mama up, she gon give u a whoopin. I’ma See you later, ok? Love you.”
“Love you too.”
I shook his hand the way I shook all my other friends’ hands. It made him feel like he was one of my friends, and he was. He was more than just my friend, he was my brother and there was nothing I wouldn’t do for him. I walked back downstairs while Pooter’s laughter echoed off the walls and followed me down each step. I went into the bathroom, made sure my attire was straight, and then I was out the door. The weatherman said it would be about 53 degrees today, and for a winter day in Milwaukee, that was pretty warm.
I pulled up to JV’s house as he sat outside on his porch, enjoying the abnormal Milwaukee weather. A wife beater hugged his chest and a blunt dangled out of his mouth. Javaar lived with his parents. They almost had the stereotypical, all-American dream house. The classic, all-white, two story house, complete with 2.5 kids, a lassie-dog and a big backyard with a white picket fence around it. Even though JV’s house wasn’t exactly like that, it was close enough. He lived in a big, white house on the corner of the block culturally mixed neighborhood. A Black and Asian couple lived next door to Javaar. They had the prettiest little bi-racial girl I had ever seen. She would always play outside in their front yard during the summer months as her parents watched her from their front porch, one reading the paper, the other knitting. To them, she was a part of the culture that would eventually eliminate all racial barriers. There was a black family who lived across the street from JV. They were an older couple. They had a pretty brown-skinned granddaughter who would always come by and stay with them every now and then. She would flirt with us, but she was only 16, so neither of us would give in to her. But even with that, me and JV both, were counting down the days until she turned 18. There was a white family on the left side of them. They had a little rat-looking dog they called “mimi” that always seemed to break free out of the house. They were a childless couple, so they gave that dog all the love they had stored up for their children. They dressed that dog in all types of clothes and carried it in their arms like a newborn baby. Javaar blew smoke out his mouth as soon as I got out my car.
“Whassup ugly nigga!”
“ahhh… this dude always tryin to call somebody ugly. You know I’m the finest nigga in the fam!”
He got up to shake my hand and lean his shoulder in for the half-a-hug most men give to each other.
He was 6’2, brown-skinned with a body that looked as if it was chiseled by God himself. He was a standout football player since he was 15. During High School, he put on a few pounds of muscle and because of that, he wore wife beaters every time an inch of sunshine peaked through the skies. He had tattoos on both of his biceps. He looked more like an ex-con than somebody who was on their way to college. After we went back and fourth for a minute with insults, I switched the subject.
“But anyways, whassup wit you?”
“Man. Man. Man.”
JV’s head dropped towards the ground. There was a long pause between us. Two squirrels scampered across the sidewalk. I wondered why they weren’t hibernating. Maybe the weather confused them as much as it confused us. He took a puff on his black and mild and blew it out as the sweet smell floated into my senses. I could tell he was fighting back tears. He rubbed his eyes like he was just waking up.
“Man, I just got some news yesterday. Matter of fact, it was last night. Late.”
He stopped talking for a few seconds. I didn’t wanna rush him into speaking. I let him take his time. This seemed a lot more serious than I thought it would be. Usually, he’d say something like, “I got beef with this dude”, or “Man, these girls is makin me sick” but this time, it felt different. It even made me feel a little un-easy; like I was the one dealing with the problem and not him. He looked up at me for a second, and dropped his head back down. He spoke to me while looking at the cement beneath us,
“Shelly is pregnant.”
Shelly was my cousin. They were dating each other for almost a year now. When he told me she was prenant, I was surprised, but not shocked. Both of us had a hard time understanding what a condom was and when to use it, so I knew something like this would eventually happen.
“Pregnant? Straight up?”
“She knows for a fact, or she just think she is?”
“Nah man, I bought her one of them lil pregnancy tests from Walgreens and it came back positive. Then she went to the doctor just to make sure.”
I wasn’t thinking that this was a bad thing. In fact, I was kind of happy for them. I had to admit, their baby was going to be real cute because my cousin was real pretty, and JV wasn’t half bad. I didn’t see his pain until he told me the rest of the story.
“We were talking last night for a long ass time. From 10 to like 4am.”
He took another puff on the black and mild. The smoke he blew out was visible only for a moment before the wind carried it away. He continued speaking,
“And we decided that we wasn’t gon keep it. I mean, she getting ready to go to school in Georgia and I’m about transfer to Alabama A&M to play football next semester. I mean, it’s not time. It’s gon mess everything up.”
His response took the breath out of me. I wasn’t expecting that at all. I would’ve never guessed it. Ever.
“Yall sure yall wanna do that?”
A few tears began to escape his eyes and as much as he tried to hide them, it was obvious that they were there. I couldn’t help but feel for that baby whose life was about to come to an end before it was even able to have one. I didn’t want to preach to him about what the bible says because his daddy was a pastor and I knew that he probably already knew everything I was about to tell him. A few of his tears slid down his cheek and exploded onto his beater. His eyes were focused on the cement like he was trying to figure out a way to build a sand castle out of it. I sat on the porch next to him, looking up to the sky and asking God to guide the words that came from my mouth.
“Dawg, you know im in yo corner for whatever. Man everything we been through, you know I’ma be there for you. If this what you wanna do, I’m standin behind you. Just weigh all yo options before you jump right into it, nahmsayin. I don’t know what you goin through cuz I never been there myself, but I see yo tears, so I know its real.”
He wiped his eyes and inhaled the cool winter air. The black and mild burned close to the edge,
“Thanks bruh. I needed to hear that cuz this shit was eatin me alive. I was beatin myself up and the last thing I needed to hear was ‘that’s wrong’ cuz I already know.”
He stood up off the porch and flicked the black and mild across the sidewalk and onto the street. The smell still lingered in the air. I felt bad, but all I could do was pray for him and Shelly. That’s all you really can do for people; pray, and help when you can. I stepped up to give him the brotherly hug I thought he needed. Shoulder to shoulder and one arm around each other’s back; that’s the way men hugged.
“Like I been sayin man, I’m here for you. No matter what. Ride together, die together.”
“I appreciate that man. And that’s from the heart. I Love you dawg.”
“I love you too bro.”
In the midst of our brotherly love, a big body Chevy pulled up from around the corner and parked in front of JV’s house. By the looks of it, I expected a 6’5’’, 315-pound man to exit the vehicle. I looked at Jv as we realeased each other,
“Dawg, who is this nigga pullin up in front of yo house?”
He laughed. I didn’t know what was funny until I saw who got out the car. It was Shelly, all 5 foot 4 inches of her. She was the last person I expected to see get out of that car.
“Shelly, who car you got?”
She smiled as the car door, in need of some WD-40, creaked shut behind her
“This Melvin old beat-up chevy. My car in the shop.”
Melvin was my cousin and her older brother.
“Oh, I thought you was a nigga pulling up.”
She walked her small frame up the curb while her shoulder length, sandy brown hair blew in the soft winter breeze. She playfully pushed me out the way so she could get to JV,
“oh, aight COUSIN, thas how you treat family huh?”
Smiling, she came back to me, reaching her arms out to give me a hug, but I lightheartedly pushed her away,
“Naaah, naaah, I don’t want no hug now. You gave mine to JV.”
JV came to her defense,
“You should be used to getting hugs last whenever im around. They always come to the prettiest nigga first.”
I laughed, “Whatever nigga.”
Shelly and JV hugged. I could tell that they needed some time alone, so I made my way back to my the car.
“JV, hollat me if you need anything dawg, aight?”
“Yeah bruh. I’ma hit u up.”
“Aight. Bye Shelly.”
While in Jv’s arms, she smiled at me,
“Bye cousin, love you.”
“yeah yeah yeah.”
As I was getting into the car, a black Regal began to drive slowly past us. I paused, not knowing what to expect. JV let Shelly go out of his arms and stood in front of her. The car crept past us, smoke coming out of the cracked windows like a chimney, but nothing happened. They just rode off. I stared at the car as it rolled down JV’s block, then I glanced at JV.
“Bro, what was that all about? You got some enemies?”
His eyes stayed focused on the Regal that slowly eased out of sight,
“I don’t know. But I got into it with some cats by Do-Dirty nem house a little while ago. This like the second time I seen them ride past today.”
Do-dirty was one of his High School friends. He lived in the Meadows, one of the rougher neighborhoods on the North Side of Milwaukee. JV was fired up. I saw it in his eyes. It didn’t take much to set him off, and added to the fact that his emotions were already high, I wouldn’t of put any violent act past him. Anger is a deadly emotion. I’m just glad that he didn’t have a pistol.