Jimmy, an African American teenager, tries to find a way to love his mother without letting his anger for her get in the way--2006. (Won 2007 Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers)
Basically, I don't give a fuck, and yes, I do have to put it out there like that. I don’t hold my tongue for anyone. But it’s more than just me sayin’ it; I’m livin’ it. Everybody knows that I’d sooner knock a nigga out than talk about it, fuck talkin’, and I’ve got the weight behind me to back it up; I’m five-foot eleven, one hundred ninety-two pounds of head crackin’ headache. And if part of walkin’ the walk is lookin’ the part, then check out the way I dress. My jeans sag on me like the skin on those wrinkled dogs and hang halfway in-between my knees and waist. My heels rub holes in the bottom of my pants legs. The long white tee-shirt that I wear (I’ve got about eighteen of them) would be an ankle-length dress on most any woman, and ain’t nothin’ goin’ through this black sheep’s hair but a hot comb, and even that’s gonna be a struggle.
My language is broken, but my mind ain’t. So while I don’t give a damn about "proper English," it ain’t because I can’t learn it. Dis, dat, dese, and dose, homies, homeboys, hookers, and hoes—that’s how I flow. Oh, and recognize the attitude, which is far from gratitude, and even further from latitude; ‘cause I ain’t takin’ nothin’ from nobody.
"Jimmy, get your ass in here and take out this trash!" My mom yells at me from the front door. "I shouldn’t have to tell somebody fifteen years old the same shit over and over again!" Well, I do have to put up with her, but only ‘cause I ain’t ready to leave home yet.
The air outside is thick and wet; I can hardly breathe, and it’s as hot as hell times Africa. I’m on the front steps of my house sunbathing. Why, because I wanna get blacker. Now, I’m already black—asphalt black. But I wanna get so black that I can just scare somebody shitless. You know, be a walkin’ laxative. My father used to say…my father…my dad. Things were better when he was around, I daydream, trips, pillow fights, races. You can never get a time machine when you need one. Anyway, my dad, who stopped comin’ around when I was nine after my mom sued him for child support, used to say, "If you gonna be somethin’, then be it all the way. No half-steppin’." Well, I’m gonna get as black as I can possibly get.
"Boy!" Mom yells again. "You betta get your ass in here!"
I look back at her and shake my head, "I’m right here on the steps. You don’t have to yell." Across the street a guy and two girls are crackin’ up.
"Just get in here and take out this trash!" She leaves the door and walks back into the house.
I get up off of the front steps, ‘cause it’s the fourth time she’s asked me, and five’s her breakin’ point. If I don’t take out the trash now it’s gonna get ugly, and now’s not the right time for it to get ugly; ‘cause like I said before, I ain’t ready to leave yet.
As I pass through the door my eight-year-old sister is playing with a Bratz doll, one of those ghetto Barbie dolls. You know, the one’s where the black girl looks like she’s a broke trick from the projects, the Hispanic girl looks like she’s from a one bedroom house with twenty people livin’ there, and the white girl looks like she’s a black wannabe from the trailer park. "I can’t believe mom got you that stupid big headed doll!" I grin at her.
"I can’t believe your dad named you Jimmy!" She answers back, "That’s short for James, right? Your name is not even James. Your daddy is stupid."
"What you say about my daddy?" My eyes squint. I walk towards her, not wanting to hurt her, just maybe grip her up and shake her.
"Mom!" She screams.
My mom yells from the kitchen, "You betta stop messin’ with that girl, and you betta be on your way in here to get this trash!"
Oh, I didn’t mention that I can’t stand my little sister. I can’t stand her silky pony tails. I can’t stand her light skin that’s only two shades darker than her daddy’s white skin. I can’t stand her cute smile that makes me not want to strangle her. I can’t stand that in three years of elementary school, she hasn’t gotten less than an "A" on anything. But most of all, I can’t stand the way that she can break me down and have me feelin’ all emotional.
I walk out of the living room that’s cluttered with third grade girl toys, coats, shoes, and dirty plates, through the dining room without a table (it’s propped against the wall, legless), and into the kitchen where the drop ceiling has dropped most of its panels and fried chicken and fish grease has stained the walls. Pulling the trash from the waste basket, I open the backyard door, and walk down the steps to the trash can. For weeks there’s been a hole in the lid, so when I open it there’s rice everywhere, except that this is the rice that crawls and would like nothin’ betta than to have a nice warm pile of shit for breakfast.
The phone is ringing as I walk back into the house. I answer it and a man’s voice on the other end asks for Kim. I hand the phone to my mom and sit down at the kitchen table, grabbing a banana out of the fruit basket to my left. I don’t peel it though, I just slap it against my palm and after a few seconds she glances at me and gives me a "Jimmy crack corn" look as she shrugs her shoulders and smirks, you know, that "I don’t care" look. Then, minutes later, she hangs up and confirms what I was thinking.
"You have to watch Kia tonight." Mom says. She rinses a glass in the sink. The suds dissolve quickly in the stream of water. Then she reaches over to me and snatches the banana out of my hand and washes that too.
"But you know I’m plannin’ to go to the movies wit Quaan and Isaac tonight!" I frown, half surprised, half expectin’ it. "You knew this since Tuesday."
"Well, you shouldn’t be hangin’ out with those two drug dealers anyway."
"That’s just another excuse!"
"Well, how ‘bout this: things change. Get used to it." She doesn’t even look up.
Change! I’m heated. What does she know about change? She’s been the same triflin’ person for as long as I can remember.
"It’s wit that same muthafucka ain’t it? I growl as I stand up and move closer to her.
She lets go of a plate and backhands me. Whap! The water on her hand makes the sting worse, almost like gettin’ beat with a belt fresh out of the bathtub.
"What I tell you about your fuckin’ mouth." Her head turns to me. It seems like it’s gonna keep goin’—like in the Exorcist.
"Slap me if you wanna, but he betta not do that shit again!" I stomp out of the kitchen and head to the stairs. Before I can hit the first step, I notice my little sister running up to me. She tries to grab me around the waist, but I’m not in the mood for being sentimental though. I’m never in the mood.
I push her hands away and run up the stairs and head to the bathroom. My cheek is still on fire, and I swear I can see a red mark as I look in the mirror. Then I laugh at the thought of it—my black behind with a red mark.
Looking longer than I need to, I begin to see my father. Our broad noses fog the mirror with strong breaths, and our big foreheads wrinkle with anger. Maybe she would treat me differently if I didn’t look so much like him…maybe.
Like my mother, my lips are thick, but mine aren’t sexy—not that I would want them to be. My hair is a tangled afro now, but if I have a track meet, I braid it up because braids give me wind resistance. There are times when I’m out there on the track running the 100 meter sprint that I feel like I’m the fastest man alive. The other sprinters must feel like it too as I leave ‘em in the dust. I’ve got medals out my ass. You think my mother would come to a meet, just one meet.
"Jimmy," my mom snaps, "I gotta get in there!’
There are seven steps to my bedroom; I do it in five, brushing by her without paying her any attention. My room’s a mess. There’s stuff everywhere, but I don’t care. The highlights: dirty boxers and socks as well as a half-eaten bologna and mustard sandwich.
I pass the time shooting hoops with my Styrofoam basketball. The basket is across the room, screwed to the closet door. I always miss, and after ninety-nine bricks on the wall I get tired of shootin’ and pick up a pencil and pad. I might be horrible at one black stereotype, but I’m nice at the other.
"It is said that Christ bled for the sins of men,
But has he bled enough for the skin I’m in.
Whether black, beige or brown like cinnamon
The syringe of sin pumps the venom in.
"Jimmy," Mom yells from downstairs, "Get down here and watch your sister. I'm leavin'."
Snap! The pencil point breaks and flies across the room, and I’m drawn out of my zone. I’m pissed ‘cause it’s hard to get there and even harder to stay. I walk downstairs. She tells me that dinner’s in the fridge and not to think about sneakin’ out because Kia always tells her the truth. I want to tell her that I don’t give a fuck, but again, it’s not time for me to leave yet.
She looks good, betta than any mom ought to look. Her hair is up in some kind of loop the loop style. You can see her high cheek bones that way. She’s wearin’ tight jeans and a tight almost half-shirt top that she shouldn’t be wearin’—just because she’s somebody’s mom. I hate when she dresses like this, especially when my boys are around.
Honk! Honk! Through the front window, I can see a Cadillac Escalade. Yup, same nigga, I think to myself, I can’t believe this shit. She walks out the door. A guy walking by stares at her, he can’t take his eyes off of her. Honk! "Keep movin’!" A voice yells from the Escalade. The guy who can’t believe his eyes hurries on.
Time drags on like the hour hand’s got a paper weight attached to it. I’m in the living room sittin’ on a magazine that’s on top of a newspaper that’s on top of one of Kia’s homework assignments that’s on the sofa. I could clean it, but I won’t. My sister’s gettin’ on my last nerve. She’s braggin’ about all the A’s she’s gettin’ at school and says that if it was possible to misspell "I" that I could do it. And then she’s got the nerve to ask me to play jacks with her! I tell her to get out of my face with her stinkin’ breath.
"My breath don’t stink," She rolls her eyes.
"Yes, it does," I tell her again, "You’ve got zactlees."
"What’s zactlees?" She asks.
"It’s when your breath smells exactly like shit."
"Oh yeah, well, your breath smells like a bag of smashed assholes!" I lean forward, and Kia runs upstairs. Like I said, I can’t stand her, but I like the fight in her. Her pretty ass is gonna need it growin’ up around here. People are goin’ to hate on her just because…just because.
Boom, boom, boom! It’s Fuquaan and Isaac, my two "always havin’ a forty handy" friends, right on time. It amazes me how the poster boys for D.U.I. are never late. I open the front door. They’re standin’ there with baggy jeans, long white tee shirts, braided hair, and, of course, forties. We look like triplets—except for the braids.
"Yo, Dog," says Isaac, "It’s nine on the dot—let’s roll."
"I can’t man," I sigh, "I gotta watch my sister."
"That’s some gay ass shit right there, dog," frowns Fuquaan, "I ain’t expect nothin’ like that from you."
"How old is your sister?" Isaac asks. "Seven? She can watch her damn self."
"You two niggas are sixteen and you can’t even watch yourselves, and besides, she’s eight."
Fuquaan throws his hands up in the air, "Aw man, that’s even worse. Come on, J"
Peer pressure is tough, and I’m feelin’ it. It’s Friday night and we were planning to go the movies. After that, we were goin’ to hang outside and kick it with the honeys. Maybe I was gonna get the chance to spit some lyrics. Man! I wanna go bad. Fuck it, I think to myself, mom will get over it.
I turn around to go get my things and Kia’s on the landing that separates the lower stairs from the upper stairs. Her eyes look like they did that Christmas a few years ago when mom didn’t make it home from her date until 2:30 in the afternoon. Her ponytails shine in the dim light of the living room. She looks like one of her Bratz dolls, except for that she’s a lot younger and a whole lot more innocent looking. I shake my head. I want not to care. Why should I care? Who cares about me? Nobody.
I want to keep on going. Grab my stuff and get going is what I tell myself, but I can’t. This is a messed up neighborhood. Anything can happen while I’m gone, and I mean anything. No way I want that on my conscience. I turn back around and face my boys, "Yo, go ‘head without me. But keep your ears on your phones. You know what we talked about before, right."
Kia walks over and wraps her arms around my waist as I shut the door. I don’t know how to feel at first. It’s been a long time since my last hug. Then I feel awkward, like something is out of place. My arms hover over her wanting to know what it would feel like to hold someone for the hell of it, you know, just because you felt like it.
I hate when I’m like this; I don’t feel strong anymore. I feel like I can be got to. Although, if she’s the one that can get to me, maybe that’s not so much of a bad thing. My head’s cloudy, and full of stuff I don’t want to be thinkin’ about. Like maybe I should spend more time with her, and maybe I need to be a better brother. I try to control my thoughts, try to think of other things, but it’s no use. Little monster, you make me sick. Then, all of a sudden, my arms feel heavy, and they drop to Kia’s shoulders. It’s as much of a hug that I can manage.
I awake to a loud bang. The first thing I see is 1:22 on my digital clock. It’s dark, of course, and my eyes haven’t adjusted yet, but everything I need is within arms reach. No, no gun, not even a knife handy, but below my bed is my nigga-be-cool stick, I grab it after puttin’ on my timbs. If it ain’t who I think it is, somebody’s gonna get there egg whites, yolk and bits of shell scrambled all over the carpet, and it ain’t gonna be me.
There’s no time to put on my jeans, so I leave the room in my boxers. First stop: check to see if Kia’s okay. I ease down the hall and crack her door; she’s sleeping soundly, so I head downstairs. As I walk down the steps, my back’s against the wall so I can have a good view of the entire room. My heart beat’s racing, and my grip around the stick’s so tight that my hands start to cramp. Slow down, I tell myself. The stairs creak under my weight, and I pause. Sweat streams down my face. I can smell it. It’s got that musty brutish smell, that "I’m gonna break this stick off in somebody’s ass" smell. I can also smell my fear; it’s sweet like Aunt Jemima’s pancakes and syrup. When I was eleven I taught myself to think of sweet things that I wanted to eat when I was afraid. It helped me to focus. Three weeks ago in school when I whipped a guy’s ass it was apple pie. This time it’s pancakes and syrup.
I inhale the warm, buttery, sugary scent and start moving again. When I get to the landing, I can hear sounds, sniffling sounds. There’s somebody there alright, but it’s hard to tell whether that somebody is crying or just has a runny nose. The smart thing to do right now is to take in my surroundings. My night vision has kicked in, and I can see that the front door is half open, but as far as I can tell everything else is the way that I left it. I walk down the last couple of steps and look into the dining room. Nothin’. Whoever it is is not going to get the jump on me, so I don’t say a word and I don’t turn on any lights. My steps are measured as I creep towards the kitchen. The sniffling grows louder.
As I enter the kitchen, I get low, and widen my base to brace for struggle. Balance is key. The fridge is to my right. There could be somebody hiding behind it ‘cause it’s the only place to hide in the kitchen. Past that is the basement door and then the sink. I step through and raise my stick, ready to strike, but that somebody is my mom. She’s lying on the floor in the fetal position, crying. I reach back behind the fridge and flick the light switch. She looks up at me as I lift her to her backside. Her left eye is swollen—the skin around it, raw, like uncooked steak. Her hair is frazzled and her clothes look like she’s been in a fight. She doesn’t look like the dime that walked out of this house earlier, but she’ll survive.
I grab a bag from the cabinet above the sink and then reach into the freezer to get some ice. She reaches out her hand and I give her the bag, placing it on her eye. I don’t say a word to her; I just head out of the kitchen and close the front door, then sprint up to my room and grab my cell phone, hitting the speed dial.
"What’s up J?" Fuquaan asks.
"It’s on," I reply.
"We’ll be there in fifteen." I know they won’t be late.
The night has a stillness to it, which is odd. In this part of town there’s always somethin’ jumpin’ off. Also, the humidity from the day is gone and the air is cool. That’s odd too; it’s August, supposedly the dog days.
Before I leave the house I hear someone walking down the stairs. I turn around and see my sister, but I don’t stop. The door slams behind me as I jump down the steps. My adrenalin’s pumpin’ already. I hop into Quaan’s ’98 Explorer—stick in hand—and give him and Isaac each a pound. We’ve been there for each other since the snot nose years and we’ll be there for each other in the end.
"I hear he hangs up Broad Street a little ways at this bar called Sloppy Joe’s," I tell them, "Hang a left here and shoot straight up."
"Let’s do this shit," shouts Isaac, showing a forty-five.
"Nah, no guns," I pat my stick in my hand, "No need to kill ‘em. But don’t worry; he ain’t gonna be the most athletic muthafucka after all this either. Quaan, you still got those thick ass table legs in the back from my mom’s old dining room set."
"Yeah, I got ‘em." He answers.
It seems like we hit all green lights on the way up Broad Street. We’re movin’ so fast the neon signs on the front of the stores and other businesses are barely readable. I slide my butt forward in the seat and lean all the way back, tryin’ to calm down, but that ain’t workin’.
We get to Sloppy Joe’s and ride around the block a few times looking for the Escalade. We spot it and park and wait. We’re on a street that forms a "T" with the street that the Escalade is parked on. There are houses down the block, but where he’s parked at there are two warehouse looking buildings on both sides. It looks like he’s tryin’ to hide from someone, but unfortunately for him, the spot’s perfect for what we have to do.
Eighteen minutes pass before we see a person walking towards the truck. As the person approaches a light from the building gives us a good look. It’s him, my muscles, already tense, now feel like they’re gonna rip themselves from the bone.
"Let’s go," I open the door slowly. He sees us and makes a run for his car, but I’m too fast. I outrace Fuquaan and Isaac and catch up to him about fifteen feet from his car, cutting him off. We’re right under a street light.
"Remember me, muthafucka!" I yell as the anger twists my face. His eyes widen as he recognizes me. I slap the stick against my left hand.
"Hold on now!" He shouts as he shuffles his feet to keep his distance, but I ain’t hearin’ it. Swinging at him, I miss. I’m too amped, but by now Isaac and Fuquaan have caught up, and as I swing and miss again, the guy dips his head right into a table leg. He falls over, dazed.
"Ahhh!" He moans. One of his hands holds his bleeding head, the other reaches out to me for mercy. "Don’t…don’t do this shit man. I didn’t mean it, but I had too much to drink and…"
"And!" My face is really screwed up now, "You think that’s gonna help you get out of this shit? You think any excuse you can come up with is gonna make a difference! Dumb ass muthafucka!" I kick him in the ribs and turn to Quaan and Isaac. "Look, don’t hit ‘em in the head no more," I order, "Remember, I don’t want to kill ‘em. I want him to feel every bit of dis shit though, so I need him awake."
"Have it your way, Dog," Isaac says. We proceed to beat his arms and legs. Dull thumps drum through the air. I concentrate on his hands, those hands that like to hit women, those hands that hit my mom. When we’re done he looks like a ketchup-covered pretzel—almost boneless, like he’s been filleted. He might never walk again, but I don’t give a fuck.
We race out of there and shoot back down Broad Street. Both of them are talkin’ trash. There the ones that are amped now; I’m relaxed though, ‘cause I know what I gotta do, and I know what that is gonna lead to.
They let me off in front of my house, and I walk in and head upstairs. First, I shower and get into some clean clothes. Then, I head for my mother’s room. Unexpectedly, my sister is standing in the middle of the hallway. I try to move past her, but she says "no" and moves over to block me. This happens a few more times before she grabs me. I reach down to her shoulders to push her away and feel her nightshirt; it’s wet. I lift my hands to touch her face and feel the tears pouring from her eyes. She must know what might happen if I go in. Still, I’ve got to go.
I grab my sister firmly and move her out the way, entering my mom’s room. Next, I feel my way to her bedside and wake her up. It’s black in her room, like the true meaning of the word black. She turns over and sits up. "You ain’t never gotta worry about him hitting you again," I tell her, "I took care of him."
I’m bracing for contact, but I’m not expectin’ a hug. A thank you will do. I don’t know I’ll handle it, but after the shock wears off, maybe it’ll feel good like a hand placed gently on my cheek. Maybe she’ll show me some love for having her back like a son ought to.
Instead, I hear her crying, that can barely breathe type of crying, and she says with as much venom as anybody can say anything hurtful, "I fuckin’ hate you! How could you hurt him?" And then my heart shrinks, and I feel myself getting blacker, almost like I dissolve into the darkness of the room around me, into nothingness. I don’t need the sun anymore.
And now, well, I tell her everything that I always wanted to tell her, including the fact that she… ain’t… shit! I might have been able to find a better way to say that, but you know what: Kim crack corn, and I don’t give a fuck.