is the beginning of a daily appreciation of an environmental narrative written in a language of items curated through repeated exercise of search and happenstance. Each item—word—represents a note of emotions, running the gamut of a shopper’s experience: confidence and uncertainty,, frugality and debt. This is how a home is home is designed.
I was just thinking about dark matter, how powerful it is, how it is the beginning of us all, the mother, the Eve, thee eve. Dark matter is undetectable, yet robustly influential on the universe and evolution, and black holes let nothing escape–not light, not stars, not galaxies. At the latter’s edge, time appears to stop and at its core, matter shrinks to infinite density and the known laws of physics break down. And I thought my mother was an overbearing and powerful mystery. You. Don’t. Know. Her.
My mother was a war drum who talked about eating red dirt as a little girl, whose life was saved by putting piss in her ear as a baby. My veins are not blue but green, guaranteeing nothing except connectedness to dirt.This means I am real.
Still, I stand beside white lines of lies and delusion, where shaming the devil and speaking with veracity might just be considered an act of violence, and assist. Not infrequently I wonder when I might, she might, we might shame the devil and speak the truth, connect poor Nefertiti back to her roots. She’s been in Germany a long time. But then pride proceedeth the fall and few egos rival the self-regard of monumental northern aligned tomb skyscrapers.
Kemit itself represents this shame, a denied mother whose seeds sprouted into things chopping at the trunk and picking off the leaves, refusing to splash a little water to relieve over-cried eyes. Be then still reasonable; though they left black and returned white,the root itself cannot be killed, though time and space have joined to assist in a catching of lust, a belief in supremacy, an easier way out or in—vanity. And so taking credit for the brilliance of the pyramids helps build nations because it helps build identity and esteem. Can you believe the mortar is stronger than the stones?
This denial of dark matter—mother, the universe, people—and this superior fact of black, woe little black, is touted as something evil when it is more than the root; it is the cure. Is not our earliest experience with dark the shade of eyelids during rest?
I cannot blame capitalists, really. The window of motivation is wide open like legs of a great whore tempting a take, the wealth of her being to make celebrity the inheritance of a gold mine. The real issue is greed. It’s unreasonably strived upon to be a star; already we are born of stardust and back into the elements we will ascend. Forgetfulness, no ignorance, of these things is in some the way endurance is in others. Theirs and ours, how odd.
To be a supernova some beck, while others plot the future of their great, great grandchildren, striving for immortality, becoming an ideal packaged to be sold and bought, a guarantee of what is to come, an unbreakable mirror. Such are the ways of a righteous man. It is all about choices, no? A star’s death is not caused by another; it dies from within, but I bid dark matter too resilient for that, although this resilience is promoted as a posturial stance diminished into a representational crawl. Perhaps it is the matter of looking back, instead of just remembering; recalling instead of just knowing; reacting instead of just acting. A star dies when its atoms no longer fuse to give it energy; they become a stellar core remnant made up of electron degenerate.
What happens after a star’s death depends on its mass. Life after death, yes. If a large star’s mass is sufficient enough it might become a black hole after its collapse and the explosion of its outer layers into a supernova; if too small it forms into a neutron. Either way, massive stars live fast and die young, exhausting their nuclear fuel swiftly before going out with a bang.The death of an average star is slower coming; when there is no longer heat to support the core against gravity, the hydrogen burning continues in a shell around the core and the star swells into a red giant before shedding its outer layers and forming a planetary nebula. Eventually, the carbon core will cool and become a white dwarf, the dense remainder of a once bright star. Though dead, it is still hot and thus still shines, albeit dim.
1 CORINTHIANS 15:53-55 “It’s necessary for this rotting body to be clothed with what can’t decay, and for the body that is dying to be clothed in what can’t die. And when the rotting body has been clothed in what can’t decay, and the dying body has been clothed in what can’t die, then this statement in scripture will happen: Death has been swallowed up by a victory. Where is your sting, Death?”
To the believer, what is death and what is dark? Does not the Most High join the elements–His creation– and birth forms a new? Don’t we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28)? Do we remember the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen (Matthew 20:16)? Is harmonization not an act of faith, as with the “one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren” taught in Acts 1:14? As evident with the day and the night, and the seasons and the generations of stars, and as with King David himself, who “had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep; he was buried with his ancestors and his body decayed. But the one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay.” ( Acts 13:38) Do we act with faith, hope and love in the knowledge that nothing moves without Yahweh, the Creator of all things, seen and unseen?
PSALM 8:1-9 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas. O Lord, our Lord,how majestic is your name in all the earth!
Are you in awe, like King David, a man after God’s own heart?
So abundant are the blessings of the Lord, we can only see a small percentage of his handy work; all the atoms and light in the Universe together make up less than 5% of the total contents of the cosmos–the rest is composed of dark energy and dark matter. Praise Him: “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth.” (Exodus 34:6) Who are we that the Lord might be gracious and longsuffering (long-tempered, that is)?
E New York Ave Opened its arms when the world said no. The street where I groaned The loss of mother, walking the avenue in a stupor one chilly day. It is where a luxury Condo sheltered our stay. Never mind The shelter was full of crack heads. The only rocks I noticed were the granite kitchen countertops and boulders In Lincoln Terrace park. E New York Ave, Brooklyn Home to my three and me. We Will part ways. E New York Ave is temporary Harlem calls my name. Midtown inhabits my dreams. The upper east side boasts all I can be. But, Brooklyn, you are (I thought) real. I love You, (I thought) baby. E New York Ave Home to God’s people The Jehovah’s Witness The West Indian Christian The Hasidic Jew, master of black attire Madam of wig. You are Loud in the summer Just right in fall Winter brings little notion Spring joy enthralls E New York Ave.
The stumble I don’t recall; only the image of the tall, lean nanny named Jean standing at the top of the basement staircase looking down at me, unmoved by my cries, navigates the hippocampus. Next is my one-year-and-five-month older brother James, his gravity-defiant halo of golden hair about his face, pulling me up step by step in my walker as if we were climbing a mountain. After reaching the peak, he made us jelly sandwiches and me a bottle.
This memory was verified as such when one day—after the falling outs, the fights over the trust fund, the years of muzzledness, the death of dad, the disagreements about family, the death of mom, the one-sided silence, the other-sided silence—James asked, “Do you remember when you fell down the stairs and I helped you back up?”
“I wasn’t sure if that was a dream,” I replied.
“Nah, that was real,” he affirmed.
But he had always been my hero. With him near I always felt safe—except for the couple of years his temperament untamed exploded toward me in an anger roused by anything. And even then I was never scared; and even those few times were a blink or two in a long stare toward protection that centered both my self-esteem and boundaries as a young lady. Through it all, he was a hero.
“What did you say about my sister?” he’d ask if a boy made a comment, complimentary or not, about me. When we participated in the Wichita Summer Youth program, where we worked together at McDonald Douglas golf course filling divvies with chicken feed and trimming trees, he ensured the all-white male adult staff respected his thirteen year old sister. “That’s my little sister, man,” he told Steven, a rambunctious former frat boy who used comedy to approach lines of inappropriateness that were never crossed at the guidance of my then fourteen-going-on-fifteen year-old brother.
“I remember when you were little. You used to walk around in those toy plastic high heel shoes,” he once told me. “If someone tried to pick you up or give you a hug, you’d just start kicking. You were real wild.”
A year after telling me how unfriendly of a child I had been he stopped talking to me again, upset I was finally selling our neglected childhood home. I sent him a holiday reminder: “Happy Father’s Day! I’ll still kick your ass in my plastic shoes!”
Never was a “ha ha” more victorious than the one he texted.
Comedy had been our bond since we were two kids jumping in our parents’ bed, competing to out-cuss one another after sneaking a listen to Richard Pryor’s That N**ger’s Crazy. Years later we would watch Charlie Murphy recount his Rick James and Prince interactions on The Dave Chappelle Show from the den sofa in my subprime mortgaged house.
In early pregnancy, unaware I was carrying my third child, James caught me as I fainted while walking up the same concrete stairs inaccessible to us as youngsters during dad’s cocaine days, when the Mary Kay room transformed into a drug den behind a locked wooden door.
And he was my animal hero, too. My first pet, a cat named Oreo, was procured because he had the courage to brave a big orange tom cat with a purple tongue who randomly attacked people guarding dad’s friend’s front porch housing a litter of kittens. Ten years later he’d carry into the house my new she-wolf Princess, an alpha to her brother Bear’s omega, as she attempted to snap at everyone as a cub. And a decade after that, he was my hero when removing a large gray Persian cat hissing and pissing all over my basement.
When our dad returned home after four years in prison to children having hit milestones in his absence—his youngest daughter no longer in elementary, his sons becoming young men, he was unable to re-establish authority as the head of the household. Once again, James would prove to be my hero.
Yet even heroes have limitations.
James was the not the firstborn son, John John was.
John John: the eldest son requiring a first name double repeat differentiation. He has been tall and good looking his entire life, and by the time dad came home, he stood higher than even him. John John had always been popular, succeeded academically and was good at many things: basketball, track, football, sketching.
“I like this song, but don’t tell John John,” James and I would preface our slow jams we were fond of shares, fear of the melodic compositions not being fast enough for our Atomic Dog-loving big brother always a weight in our scale of acceptability.
John John taught me some of the things a dad would teach their child: how to ride a bike, shoot hoops and hit a baseball. We sometimes played free verse trivia and—despite my being four years his junior—I would often win thanks to a memory fueled by the collection of encyclopedias in my closet that I read from front to back in reference to my random curiosity.
My brothers and I were attending summer school—for fun as dictated by mom—when dad came home, John John for driver’s education, James for a core subject and I for pre-algebra. My class ended first, so I would sit atop the red vinyl bench in the second row of the family’s white station wagon (gone was the desire to sit shotgun with my father) as dad vented about his sons.
“What is that music they listen to?”
“I don’t know,” I lied. It was NWA.
“They don’t have any respect.”
I stayed silent.
“John John played that crap on the way to church. Where the hell is he at, anyway?”
“They have to drive around, so sometimes they get back late,” I answered. “Each person in the car has to take turns driving.”
“You think I should kick em’ out of the house?”
“Those are my brothers.”
It is only now, writing this thirty years away from sitting in front of East High school under a shade tree in a very practical car dissimilar to the baby blue and maroon Cadillacs and black Mercedes ushering us through the ’80’s, when the excess of the decade was a hallmark in my house, where fur coats and precious gemstones were poured onto an under-the-age-of-ten me, yet similar to the blue station wagon set ablaze in the driveway on Independence day that was hardly independent for millions of Americans for the first eighty-six years of festivities, when my favorite Hardee’s Shirt Tales character died—it could have been Digger, Rick, Tyg, Pammy, but not Bogey; I loved them all but, please, let it not Bogey; but it was Bogey, burned to a crisp; they were all in the very back of the station wagon in position for play in case we left the house, all but Pammy, at least; when Bogey died I stopped loving any of the Shirt Tales even though each one represented a lunch date with dad after kindergarten pick-up; but what is meant for evil God turns to good and so that day would be my brothers’ and my first visit to a lake, when our big sister Valerie and her then boyfriend now husband and a couple of his sisters took us to Cheney where I was introduced to the idea of swimming with algae and rocks; and shortly after (Or was it before?) we would lose another blue car to a fire, the blue Buick gifted to my parents by my Grandpa Hannah, another hero, a pillar really, whose long-term planning either changed the trajectory of my life or firmly placed me back on it, however you view it; the blue Buick fire-starter only revealed themself decades later during a casual drive that made me realize, Wow, this woman can keep a secret; and though I am the woman’s daughter, I did not keep dad’s inquiry a secret, that I become aware the action of my telling my mom promptly what dad had asked—“You think I should kick ‘em out the house?”—was perhaps the catalyst of the next event.
Of course dad had once been a hero. He was mild-mannered to mom’s storm. He taught me three important life skills: how to tie my shoes, how to tell time, and how to eat lobster. There was a feeling of freedom by his side and from it a confidence and entitlement to any space grew and never left, even after my parents divorced and he had.
Though his lesser moments left a hole in the hearts of his children, he developed and maintained a level of integrity many never know. More than his whiteness—and the privilege that entails, his ability to forge his own path while pulling others up was his super power.
The last time dad and I sat together in the white station wagon waiting on my brothers after summer school class is the last time we would have a conversation for many years.
“I am going to walk over to Hardee’s and get a sandwich,” I informed him, prepping to exit the car.
“I don’t have any money for a sandwich,” he snapped.
“Dad, I didn’t ask you for any money.” I responded, palming the dollars in my shorts pocket. “Hardee’s is right there on the corner, so I can walk.”
“You better watch your mouth, little girl,’ dad quipped. “You’re not too big to get your ass whipped.”
I was shocked. I had received many whippings from my mother; that’s how she was raised, and that’s how she raised us. But not dad. Floored, all I could do is cry. When James approached the car to get in, he immediately noticed my tears.
“What did you do to my sister?” he questioned dad.
“Oh, you think you’re a man?” dad responded, opening his door and walking to the other side of the vehicle to approach James. “You wanna challenge me?”
I’d never seen James back down from a battle. True to form, he stood his ground. Before I knew it, he’d grabbed a branch from the shade tree. “Take your best shot!” dad shouted. James did. He missed.
We often claim the the gift is the journey, but the truth is the goal is to claim the victory. And in that moment, it was beginning to look like a loss.
But then there was John John. There is no timing like God’s timing, and when our eldest brother suddenly emerged from the school and onto the yard, approaching calmly yet with a serious disposition, I knew to Whom to give the glory. “What’s going on with my brother and sister?” he asked. Dad immediately walked to the car and got in. Although he sat in the driver’s seat, he had been dethroned.
John John, in all his extraordinary physical strength, was a subtle hero. More than James and I, with our strategic natures, I think John John craved the warmth of a family and simple comforts. Nearly eight years ago, underweight, and healing from a major surgery, John John came to our mother’s home with food, cooking it and bringing it to me as I lay on an oversize brown recliner in the den. A few days prior to going to the emergency room, where I would end up being admitted to the hospital for multiple tumors, and I would learn I had a rare cancer, all I wanted was the logs in the fireplace kindled so that I could focus on a thing of beauty; all the stuff mother refused to discard had slowly crept into my mind over the prior year, and even when I left her house her junk occupied a space in my psyche that made me feel scattered, no matter where I went or how long I stayed gone. When John John lit the fire, the flames seemed to burn away the clutter.
Recently, I spoke with James after more than a year without communication. We talked about caring for the sick and dying. We discussed business. I recognized that over time we both became the people we were called to be. Many focus on discovering who they are instead of remembering who they were—before the trauma, the loss, the accident—at their core. It is returning to the crawl in need of one’s soul—in short, it is gratitude and humility.
When dad was lying on his deathbed battling lung cancer a year and half before my cancer diagnosis, I was in East Harlem fighting eviction. I had recently expanded my ghostwriting business, but payments had been slow. To supplement income, I was long-term substitute teaching. The last person in the family to find out he was terminally ill, over the past year I’d spoken with him fairly frequently, and about all the things in which I wondered. Never once did he mention he had cancer. He told me about our genealogy and he spoke about his mother and maternal grandmother. He talked about his father, whom he’d had a tumultuous relationship with when I was a child. “My father worked very hard for his money; and you’re the one who did something worthwhile with it. I am damn lucky to be his son!”
I asked him out of his three marriages why he never married a white woman.
“Well, honey, in my experience black women and hispanic—or I should say Mexican American, because that’s who I have experience with—are much warmer.”
It was a maternal aunt who broke the news to me. When I called him, he did all the talking. “You’re my baby girl,” he told me, before drifting into a gargled speech of indecipherable words.
“Your timing was impeccable,” my sister Valerie would later tell me. “He didn’t speak again after you called.”
They say with grit he fought his cancer until the end. I disarmed myself from the world to heal from my cancer; whatever knowledge Jesus lead me to, that’s what I did. The last meal dad and I shared were fish sandwiches about six years earlier. Hot, humble sandwiches. A feast for heroes.
asked me to present a thirty dollar poem. Like sun-sweet honey make it, they say, coruscate and luke-warm. Don’t offend anyone. So I begin cleaving. My heart is now a million marching, marching, marching off-beat
beats. And without cause my eggs crack and piss on audacity. But the prostrated here—
Lady Gem that rock, that stone
she did no wrong
as funerals tell. Heartless I ride it like Hawaiian waves going home home home.
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.