I’ve lived at twelve o’ four Clymouth street for over fifty years. I’ve seen people move in and out and trees grow from saplings into fat telephone poles with umbrellas shading the streets like canopies. Don’t ask me what kind of trees—I don’t pay much attention if they don’t yield fruit. Lord knows I can’t eat leaves. I’ve seen neighbors become grandmas and grandpas and children become parents. I’ve seen the children I once taught piano become performers, doctors, teachers, and drug addicts. Yes, I’ve seen it all and I’m gonna tell you about one family. Yes, just a one because that’s all you have time for. Life moves so fast these days; I don’t want to take up too much of it. Before you know it, you’ve blinked your eyes and you’ve become grey and toothless like me.
About twenty years ago a couple moved into the house across the street. They didn’t have any children. I tell you that so you can see that they were young and prosperous; this here neighborhood ain’t too shabby. I couldn’t afford to live here myself if I hadn’t of bought this house so long ago. My second husband and I purchased it when he returned home from the war—that’s another story, though. This here story is about Danny and Cathy White and their family. They were the kind of couple many like to see move into the neighborhood. Cathy stayed home while Danny worked. All I can say is she must have had some real good loving because she didn’t seem to do much. Maids cleaned the house and they ate out every night. Even when a woman marries well, she ought to do something outside of prancing around like a peacock.
Cathy was tall, slim and blonde. Danny was dark-haired and stocky. When they moved in, I met Cathy’s mother and one of Cathy’s nephews. You ever see the movie, Children of the Corn? I usually don’t watch scary movies, but I saw a little bit of this one because one of my grandbabies turned it on while visiting; that little boy across the street looked just like the children in the movie—all of the Whites outside of Danny did, in fact: just as blonde and blue as an Aryan dream. It was almost frightening seeing them together because they looked like a tribe with no soul. Now, mind you, I don’t mean they look like the devil, I mean they looked as though they didn’t have any roots.
Danny and Cathy lived across the street for five years before Cathy became pregnant. They had a little girl named Crystal, who was as blonde, blue-eyed and spoiled as her mother. I never saw the child in anything less than wool coats in the winter and linen dresses and two-pieces in the summer. And, like I said, they ate out everyday so I saw her often.
Three years passed from the time little Crystal was born before they welcomed their second child, a boy named Anthony. Every Christmas, they received grand gifts—children cars, jewelry, handmade dollhouses, horses that Crystal’s parents kept for them, even a grand piano. Can you imagine a three year old having a Steinway and Sons? The kind with real ivory keys? Every time I saw those children beating on those precious notes, I just cringed.
As Crystal grew, her beauty became notable. When she walked to the mall, which was near our neighborhood, boys and men couldn’t help but stare. Soon, they began approaching her. They would say things like, “I’d marry your cat just to be in the family,” and “Wanna see me swell?” There was one particular thing about Crystal, though; she never looked up. When she walked, her head was always down. I could never understand it. Her daddy was rich and her mother good looking, what did she have to cry about?
Anthony had not grown into his looks. He was stocky like his father, but all his muscles were covered in fat. The boy’s chest, prominently displayed when walking from house to house to swim, looked worse than mine does now. That’s right, I’m not ashamed to admit my snow cones melted a long time ago.
And he didn’t seem to have many friends. There was one boy, however, named Raja. He went to a public school and lived on the other side of Acacia Street. I would sometimes see him and Anthony together.
When Crystal turned fifteen and Anthony twelve, their father went to prison for embezzling money. Even though it made the paper, Cathy would reference his absence as being “away on assignment.”
She was able to maintain her home due to her parents financial support and quite often neighborhood men would grab a rake or cut her lawn after they’d cut their own. A young cousin of mine was once their nanny—made good money, too—but she was let go when Cathy could no longer afford her. And while Cathy was able to keep Crystal and Anthony in private school, it wasn’t long before all the trouble began.
Crystal had not yet turned sixteen, but she has always been tall and by that time her very long legs and hair, hair she would toss back and forth, made her looks deceptive to her age. Her mother once warned her, “Your hair will fall out unless you stop flipping it,” but Crystal carried on. Strange of all the things Crystal could have been called out on, that was it. It is my thought Cathy was bothered by her daughter getting more attention than she. Didn’t take long for both Crystal and Danny to start running their mother, and it was even sooner that Crystal fell for those pathetic come on lines and was deflowered. She was fifteen and a half. Now, Crystal wasn’t exactly dumb; she was smart enough to take precaution. What she wasn’t smart enough to do is recognize her name had gotten around quick; before she knew it she had slept with most of the football team. But a real whore is shameless, and Crystal counted her acts as wins because they were athletes; that’s whom her mother always talked about her marrying and whom her father always seemed to admire. It was for Crystal a kind of confidence booster; I know because I saw the child walk with her head high for the first time.
Anthony was home a lot less as well, barely beating the sun on many nights, which was odd for his young age. I said to Cathy once, “You know, people don’t understand that children need direction from parents. They don’t need another buddy.”
“He won’t miss another lesson,” she assured me, mistaking my concern for the children’s overall safety for a call for better attendance.
When Anthony did attend piano, three things became clear: his breadstick-like fingers and lack of discipline would never take him to concert halls; he had lost respect for his mother because of her lying about the whereabouts of his dad; and he was fixated on his older sister. He once told me she reminded him of all the ballerinas he saw onstage at The Nutcracker. “I felt like there were a million Crystals running, twirling, and leaping onstage,” he flapped while spinning around. When he was a very young boy, he wanted to be just like her; in fact, that’s why he initially began taking piano.
A couple of times I saw him dropped off at home by high school jocks. He was still in middle school, but he and Crystal attended a K-12 private institution, and their school buildings were adjacent. Anthony stepped out of those jocks’ cars awkwardly beaming, the way young people do when trying to fit in. It was nauseating, the pride he seemed to elicit from his proximity to a bunch of in their glory days jerks who would probably peak at eighteen.
But that’s the way it goes: when a desperate desire is entertained, the inclination becomes an idol and one blinds oneself to what is true and self-evident in order to maintain the illusion. I am sure in Anthony’s mind he was never their entertainment; he was their friend. And it appeared over time he was developing their characteristics; I heard he told a girl three years older than him, “You must be an adverb because you modify me.” When one of the jocks told the story to another player, Mike, the latter smacked Anthony on his ass and told him he had a lot of guts to do something like that. Mike is whom deflowered Crystal.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Anthony would sneak to the other side of Acacia Street, and visit his friend Raja. The neighbors hated seeing Raja in our community—if you can call it that, so he didn’t come often. Once, when he did come, I invited him and Anthony over for cookies. Having young people around is youth dew for the old, so it was with great pleasure I saw them through the peephole of my front door. I was pleased by Raja’s genteel nature. Anthony, on the other hand, was crude. And, they did not seem to be on one accord. Raja’s face gleamed with a smile, residuals of amazement speckling his eyes and demeanor. Anthony appeared displeased, slouching in his seat and wearing an impenetrable scowl on his face even chews of homemade cookies failed to defy. Everything Raja said or did, Anthony critiqued with razor sharp jests. “Dude, you swallow like a pig.” Or, “Is that the way heathen’s eat?” “You’re a poor beast,” he commented at one point. Now, anybody could see Raja was poor because he had holes in his shoes. But that’s not the kind of thing a friend points out. It was then that I saw Anthony didn’t have to dream of being like his sister; he already had the same insecurity she had carried for so long. But there was one behavior the two boys had in common: they both were nervous, as if they had just done something mischievous.
A couple of days later, around four in the morning, I saw Crystal being dropped off by a grown man. A grown man! Crystal was still fifteen at the time and she exited the car disheveled. Don’t ask me what I was doing up because that’s my business. She had an uncustomary gait. I wanted to call out to her, but I didn’t.
It worried me so much I couldn’t go back to sleep. I cracked my ivory curtains and stared at the White’s house. She and I had the nicest homes on the street. Theirs was made of brown brick and had a shake roof. It was two stories and for some reason, though it wasn’t Tudor-style, reminded me of England.
Anthony returned home around five-thirty in the morning. He came alone. Can you imagine a boy his age out in the streets that late? Cathy must have been worried sick about him and Crystal. I can’t even imagine how she felt seeing her daughter come in at a late hour at a strange pace. Nobody could reliably claim to not smell the liquor in Cathy’s pores or on her breath before reaching arms length, so there is a high likelihood she didn’t notice anything at all.
In a way, I was shocked. Like I said, when a person’s contentment hinges on the acquisition of desires, they become blind to what they know. I watched those children grow up, taught them piano; I wanted for them only the best. My life and the lives of those whose blood pump through my veins are sewn into an unfinished quilt, the best and brightest pieces still to come. But Crystal and Anthony? To define their best as success is moot; for generations every fiber had been carefully selected to weave the perfect tapestry. Their projections were made before even their parents came to be. Anything less than high achievement is unacceptable.
About five months after those children came limping and wandering home in the wee hours of the morning, Cathy called me crying. She was rambling about being old. Imagine that. This woman young enough to be my granddaughter crying about being old? She wouldn’t calm down over the phone, so I walked across the street with a box of tea. While I steeped, she reapplied her make-up. She walked back down the stairs, ready to talk.
“Crystal is pregnant.”
Well, I figured that. I’d seen the bulge in her shirt a few months back. “Really?” A lot of girls get themselves into a little trouble. I opened my eyes wide and slowly blinked twice to feign shock. “So what, these things happen.” I thought about how I was married to a preacher at twelve and how I became a mother for the first time at thirteen. I studied Cathy’s narrow face, her thin lips. You can tell a lot about a person and how they are feeling by the movement, the notes of their lips—the way they rest them, the way the lip twitches when listening to someone else speak. The corners presently curved down; I had not given her the response she wanted. Better, she thought I was cold. I thought about what we had in common—marriage, at one point in time for the both of us—had been a career. Only my tenure came with less financial gain and my awakening came quicker and harsher.
“Crystal was raped.”
“Raped? Does she know by who?”
“She won’t say, but I think it was more than one…”
I didn’t know whether I should tell her about the grown man who I saw bring Crystal home several months back. I just sat there. See, when you get older your mind doesn’t always jump as quickly as you want it to. It can still jump as high, but not as swift. So I sat there in shock a while, even though I had suspected something that night. Well, I didn’t tell Cathy a thing. I comforted her and left.
Afterward, I kept a heavy heart. Any child I ever taught has a part of me in them and them in I. It is part of watching a child grow. That is, if you love people purely just for the sake of love.
A week had passed when I heard a knock at my door. I opened it to a sullen Raja.
“Come on in.”
“Ma’am”, I-I am sorry to bother you—”
“Oh, it is no bother, baby. Have a seat. Let me get you something.”
“Well, I am getting myself some cookies and punch. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had a long day.”
After some snacking and formalities, Raja got to it. “I been trying to reach Anthony. I keep calling him, and he ain’t answering.”
“Well, he might just be busy,” I replied. “I haven’t seen him around much lately.”
“Me neither. I even went by his school, but security threatened to call the police because I’m not a student.”
“You know,” I offered, “sometimes friends just need a little space.”
“I understand, ma’am. But he’s got something of mine.”
“Oh? What does he have?”
Raja shifted in his chair.
“I can keep a secret, baby. Take another cookie, I made three types. I can’t eat these by myself. They’ll have my sugar spiking. What is it that he has?”
Raja bit into another cookie. “He has my money. And it’s a lot.”
I wondered about his definition of a lot, but I did not ask. “Where did you get this money?”
“Mowing lawns and walking dogs,” he answered.
“Must’ve been a lot of dogs,” I replied.
“It was. But my mom got sick, so I had to stop.”
“You the only one who can help her?” I asked. You don’t have any siblings?”
“I have six older sisters, but they are all busy.”
“Busy with what?”
“College,” he answered.
“All six of them are in college?”
“Not all of ’em. And one of them that’s not is the one who needs help.”
He explained how there was not enough time to go to school, work, and take care of his mother. His six older sisters were all either gone away to college, married, or chasing and being chased by men. In fact, he said, that’s how Anthony and he became friends. They met at the Burger Shack, the only intersection of the two boys’ lives, located smack in the middle of the distance between their schools. Seems to me, they bonded over their sisters, how annoying they were, how older guys would buddy hustle them to get closer. But from what I could tell, the two boys felt differently about it. Anthony envied the power he thought his sister had over all the boys and men who gave her attention. Raja, on the other hand, pitied his sisters. He was aware all the flattery was insincere. “I just think it’s fake,” he explained when talking about his sisters’ many admirers. You ever know a child with an old soul? I could see this easily in Raja because I was one of those children. He told me he’d saved all the money he ever made doing chores so he could send one of his sisters away from the man who was beating her. I looked down at his holey shoes, chuckling inwardly at the truth in a man being known by his shoes, the holes in Raja’s an indicator of his wholeness and holiness.
“I gave Anthony my money to hold because my sister’s boyfriend was sneaking around the house and I didn’t want it to get stolen. He has money, so I knew he didn’t need mine.”
“Well you don’t know much about the wealthy, do you?” I replied. “Needing and wanting are two different things.”
“I don’t know. I just know I haven’t seen Anthony in three months, and I need my money.”
“I’ll keep an eye out,” I promised. “Write your number down and I’ll see what I can do.”
“You want me to put it in your phone?” he offered.
I accepted and as I walked Raja to the front door, I asked him about the day we first met. “Why were you so happy and Anthony sad?”
“I was happy because that’s the day I counted my money and realized I’d made enough to help my sister. But Anthony, I don’t think there was anything wrong with him. That was the day I gave him my money to hold.”
If this boy wasn’t stupid. “What about all that stuff he said to you: you eat like a pig? You slurp like a frog?”
“For real? I don’t remember that, ma’am. All I remember was those hot cookies and punch,” he replied.
After Raja left I sat and reflected on the rich child stealing from the poor child. Nothing new under the sun. Maybe Anthony was on drugs. I called Cathy and asked her how he was doing. “I don’t know; he stayed in his room all day.”
“He didn’t go to school today?” I asked.
“He says he’s being bullied and doesn’t want to go,” Cathy replied. “I’m thinking about homeschooling.” Cathy paused and I made no attempt to close the silence. She finally spoke up, “Roola, why don’t you come over for tea?”
The tea was ready to be poured by the time I crossed the street. “I really don’t know what’s going on with Anthony. There have been times where he didn’t come home for days at a time and now he won’t even leave his room.” For the first time I heard her raise her voice. “Anthony! Clean your room!”
“Has he ever had to clean his room before?” I asked.
She didn’t answer, but instead stated: “I’ve been asking him to clean his room for days.”
“Well, dear, welcome to parenthood.”
Cathy grievances escalated. “I think there is something growing under his bed. At least come say hi, Anthony!” His bedroom door opened then closed and for a moment we thought we heard his footsteps coming toward us, but they trailed toward the bathroom instead.
“It can’t be that bad. Let’s go take a look,” I asserted, halfway out of concern and the other half out of curiosity.
Cathy and I walked up the stairs together to the boy’s bedroom, which we discovered unoccupied. “You weren’t lying,” I noted, observing the stacked dishware and scattered laundry throughout the room. “Sometimes you have to give children a little jumpstart.”
I peered around the room as Cathy walked down the hall to the bathroom to get Anthony. “Anthony, come out and clean your room!”
“Just a minute!” Anthony yelled through the door.
While I was turning around to leave Anthony’s bedroom—tired of the yelling, the entitlement, the delusion—I saw a peculiar: a framed art piece leaned against the wall on Anthony’s nightstand, a poetic black-crimson smear on canvas caught my eye. I stared, intrigued, before picking the piece up for closer study. Meanwhile, Cathy stood near the bathroom door, waiting for Anthony to come out. Finally he did., frostily walking toward his bedroom.
“How can you live like this?” Cathy asked her son, who didn’t respond. When he entered the room he noticed me in the corner, art in hand. He searched my eyes for a moment, then looked down at the piece. Suddenly, he collapsed. I didn’t know what to do; I froze. The next thing I remember, I was sitting at home, holding the intriguing framed piece, staring out the window at the White’s house.
Anthony died that day. His autopsy revealed he had a grapefruit size tumor on his intestines that had developed recently and had grown expeditiously. Danny was allowed to attend the funeral, at which time he discovered his daughter Crystal was about six months pregnant—a loss for a gain.
Before the funeral, I called Raja and told him what happened. “You plan on going?” I asked.
“I don’t have a pair of good shoes to wear,” Raja replied.
I felt bad I didn’t check Anthony’s room for his money, or enquire about the money to Cathy, but I couldn’t bring myself to be so trivial after the loss of a son. “I have something for you,” I offered Raja.
Two days before the funeral he came by and picked up the gift—the art piece from Anthony’s room. He accepted with a pensive demeanor; he was hoping for more. As a matter of fact, he seemed disappointed. He tried to smile as he pleasantly thanked me, but I could tell he wasn’t impressed.
A few months later Crystal gave birth. Dad unknown or untold, Crystal never identified her rapist or showed interest in pressing charges. She named her daughter Deli, and I never saw Deli in any attire less than what Crystal herself wore as a child.
When Deli was a few months old, Raja came to visit. The wave of calamity had once again dimmed the light within him I’d basked in the first time we met, the time he and Danny sat in my den and ate cookies and drank punch, and no insult Danny threw could deflate the bubble of hope surrounding Raja’s plans to help his sister.
“I gotta stop being dumb,” he announced before taking a seat on his go-to spot, a Jamaican rattan chair a long way from home.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
He was silent for a moment, then spoke. “I sold the painting you gave me from Raja’s room. I got seven hundred dollars.”
I flinched and tried to cover my reaction with an orchestrated sneeze. “Why would you do that?”
“To help my sister. Now that she’s straight, I can focus.
“She’s straight? Well, I suppose seven hundred dollars is not so bad. Who’d you sell it to?”
“For now. And a man who collects art. He was a guest speaker at my school and I told him about the piece.”
“That’s beautiful!” I exclaimed. “I–“
He interrupted. “But there is a problem.”
“Oh,” I responded, interest piqued.
“Yeah. He wants his money back.”
“What? I don’t understand. He can’t do that.” I added another dramatic what before asking, “All of sudden he decided he doesn’t like it?”
“I don’t think anyone is going to want that piece. The man who bought it is married to a detective, and she kept insisting the paint actually looked like blood. She took it into forensic and it was confirmed. They won’t release it because it’s part of an investigation. Police came and questioned me like I knew something.”
Shocked, all I could muster is, “You better let him know the policy is no refunds or returns accepted.”
After Raja left, I debated on whether to tell Cathy. I called her. “Hi dear, I am just calling to check in on you.”
I listened to her talk. She said she was proud of Crystal for taking care of her baby so well and that ”Danny will be back home from assignment in a month.” Assignment—she still held to that delusion although everyone knew he was in prison.
Finally, I made a request. “Can you send Crystal over the next time you see her? I have a gift for her and the baby.”
“Just bring it over, doll,” she replied.
“Oh, I insist she pick it up,” I reponded.
“OK, I will shoot her a text letting her know .”
I thanked her, hung up the phone and looked around the house for a gift. I found a set of still-in package crochet pillow shams and a bottle of unopened French perfume. But the baby—what would I gift her? A tchotchke from my collection made the cut. I carefully wrapped each of the gifts and sat and waited as if I have nowhere to be but my grave, knowing I am not in a rush to that.
Crystal came over that evening. We sipped mint tea and for the baby I made soft cookies. I gave Crystal the gifts and we talked as I rocked the baby to sleep, eventually placing little Deli in one of my spare bedrooms. “Crystal, I need to share some things with you,” I advised upon my return to the living room.
I told her about Raja and the money, and she began to cry. I told her about the painting and she began to gag. She excused herself and ran to the bathroom, where she threw up. I don’t know what she had eaten, but the smell was horrendous. Another thing, she did not clean up after herself; she left throw up all over the sides of my toilet.
When she came back, I held my breath and gave her a hug. I told her to tell me what was going on and she did.
“Anthony must have known!” she started.
“Known what?” I asked. “Just go from the beginning.”
“I decided to go out with an older man because the younger ones only seemed to want one thing,” she told me. “The man was nice,” she continued, “but Anthony called me the night of our first date and said he was in trouble. I had my date take me to the address he gave. It was far away from everything and it took a while to find the area, let alone the address. When I went inside to get Anthony, all the jocks I’d gone out with before, plus a handful more, were there. I told Anthony to come with me and my date and we would drop him off at home. But Anthony said he felt sick and he didn’t want to throw up in my date’s car, so I should ask my date to pick up a bottle of Seven Up and come right back. I did, and when I came back into the house to stay with Anthony, all the guys surrounded me. They took turns. And when they finished, they pushed me into the bathroom and told me to take a shower and get dressed. I didn’t see Anthony anywhere. I turned the water on to the shower, but at first I didn’t get in. Then I looked in the mirror. I saw myself and I couldn’t take it. So I did what they said, and when I came out they all acted like nothing had happened. I asked, ‘Where’s Anthony?’ and they said he was gone. I walked straight to the front door and opened it, and got into the convertible waiting in the driveway. I thought about telling my date to take me to the hospital, or the police, but I couldn’t say the words. He asked me, ‘Where’s your brother?’ and all I could do is think to lie: ‘He’s feeling better and wants to stay.’ He asked me why I was acting different, and I told him suddenly I didn’t feel to well.”
I cried with Crystal as she told me this story. Lord have mercy, no one should go through that.
Later, it would be discovered the paint on the artwork was Crystal’s blood, and the linen was cut from one of her baby dresses. Anthony had planned the whole thing with his older buddies. He helped all those boys rape his sister and then stole his friend’s life savings to pay for her to get an abortion—the guilty attempting to right a wrong with more wrong. Crystal told me she kept her baby—despite Anthony leaving cash in a card with a note under her pillow that read: “Dear Sister, I am sorry about what happened and that you might be having a baby. I worked the past two summers to earn this money and am giving it to you to take care”—because she wanted to experience pure love.
“I had everything everyone else dreams of, but nothing I ever needed,” she told me that night.
In everything I’ve seen in life this is one of the most terrible. It’s not just because Crystal was raped and Anthony, her own brother, had set her up; and it’s not because Anthony betrayed his best friend, who had been earnest with his own siblings. It’s because Anthony held to covetousness until it became jealousy that grew into envy that transformed into delusion that developed into a bitterness splattering the pure at heart and forming into a tumor killing him before the day of remorse.
© Margery Hannah 2022. All Rights Reserved.