Chapter 1. School for Parenting
I tasted the sweat rolling down my cheeks. The big green car my mama and this man I knew as Vader drove cooked me like a loaf of cornbread when I stayed inside, so I got out and leaned against a telephone pole and opened the door for my little brother, who was sleeping.. Dressed only in shorts and flip-flops, I figured out that my shirt did more for me as a parasol than as a garment, and beside, in Ghost Town, Oakland, USA, who cared what I looked like? Most people here were like my ma, just thinking about where they were going to get high and who they owed money to.
My ma’s clear, dark chocolate skin and natural, untamed Afro are what I remember most clearly. That, and the fact that when she stood up straight, which wasn’t often, I could see her head above the Dodge Dart that Vader got at a police auction in Fremont. As far as I knew, anyone whose head rose up above the roof of a car was big. All grown-ups were big. Especially my ma. How wrong I was, and not just physically, either.
Ma had told me to sit tight, that she’d be right out. I knew there was something wrong when my head started to swim. I didn’t know how long I was roasting in the Dart before I opened the door and hung up my shirt on the telephone pole. I was six years old. I couldn’t tell time. I stood underneath my shirt, hoping that it would serve as a sail and catch any wayward breeze. I kept time to an imaginary song by wearing a crease in my flip-flops with my toes.
A rebellious blade of grass squeezed through a crack in the concrete sidewalk. There wasn’t much nature in Ghost Town. Aside from the blade of grass in front of me, and its equally wayward cousins, there were a few bramble bushes and a rare rosebush. Down Crawford Street, at the very end of town, one angry palm tree stood guard, stretching its jagged fronds threateningly at anyone who ventured that far. That palm tree dominated the cityscape of squat cement-brick warehouses and dented, rusting aluminum-sided one- and two-story houses. Around any commercial building stood a chain-link fence; at the top of the chain-link fences, chances were there would be barbed wire.
Out of boredom, I flipped off my right flip-flop and started sliding that blade of grass between my toes. I could tell just how much pressure I could put on the little green sliver before I would tear it off. My mind wandered, far out of Ghost Town, out of the nasty poverty of Foster-Hoover, all the way up the steps of my grandma’s 4-plex apartment building on North 42nd. Street, where one of our neighbors had a new Ford Thunderbird, and nobody who had their own place was in poverty, or at least not too deep in. There, Ma would go out into the laundry, and come back all shaking, but when we stayed with Grandma, we ate, slept, wore good clothes, and went to McDonald’s. And we didn’t have to share our space with Vader, who had moved in with Ma.
The earth was turning, but Ma wasn’t coming out. Shadows took little baby steps forward, finally giving the blade of grass a welcome midday shade. I crossed the sidewalk and hugged the building, wondering whether I should go inside. I was a six-year-old boy. I had to take care of my four-year-old brother. I felt so alone. I stood in that shade, and I wondered about my mom. She had done this to me before, but usually my older sister, who was nine, was there to keep me company. I didn’t yet know what these trips into Ghost Town were all about. I was, like I said, a six-year-old boy.
I couldn’t tell time, even if I had a watch, but I could guess that, based on the stretching of the shadow to the end of the sidewalk, off the curb, and onto the hubcap of the Dart, that it was two or three hours that Ma was in the house. When she came out, I was surprised, because I had stopped watching the door. I was dreaming of McDonald’s. Filet-O-Fish. Almost too hot to eat. Tartar sauce, ketchup. French fries.
“Sorry, baby,” she stammered.
Vader stumbled through the doorway next. Ma fumbled around in her purse for a moment, and drew out Vader’s key ring. Vader, quieter than he was when he went in that bungalow, didn’t even yell at Ma when the keys slipped off his hand and hit the pavement. . The big man stumbled forward and missed the keys. He grunted, turned around, and lifted up the keys. He stumbled toward the door of the Dart. I noticed that even though I was standing on a convection oven and he was inside a house that was dark and cool, he was sweating. Ma went around the front of the car to the passenger side
“It’s unlocked,” I told her.
She opened her door, and I did as well. That man cursed again, and I heard the jangle of the keys hitting the car floor. He reached down, grunted a few times, opened the door again, and stuck his feet out. So did Ma. She was looking on the floor boards and under the seat when she froze. I got back out of the car, and tapped her on her thigh.
“Can I help you, Gwen?” We called her by her first name. Maybe I would have smelled trouble with that if I were a little older.
“I got it, baby.”
She pulled the keys out from under the seat. I noticed that she was sweating, too, and that her eyes were huge, unnaturally wide open. “Ma, are you hot?” I asked. I knew that she was in a cool basement, while I was in the bright sun.
“No, I’m cold, but I’ll be OK. You never mind.”
We got back in the Dart, and she started the car. We were parked on the wrong side of the street, and Vader started out driving the wrong way. Thankfully, he corrected his mistake. After a few blocks, he found a 7-11 and pulled in front.
We walked in. Vader grabbed a bag of Halls menthol lozenges. Ma picked out a Dr Pepper and a moon pie. I had to ask. “What about me?” She rooted around in her purse, finding two crumpled dollar bills. She opened her change purse and frowned.
“We’ll have to share, baby.”
There were a lot of things that didn’t add up, but I would have time to figure this out soon enough. Too soon. Now I just wanted the cool, sweet Dr Pepper on my lips.