“BEANIE…BEANIE…WAKE UP” I hear a high pitched cry, sitting up and I can barely open my eyes. But when I do, I see the kids standing in the doorway.
“Purple, get up Beanie won’t wake up” Jackson urges. I jump up and hurry through the hallway and into the living room, where Beanie usually fell asleep. She loves the big, brown couch and would rather sleep on it than her own bed. Mama’s clutching her, crying, and Winston isn’t around.
“What happened?” I ask.
“She won’t wake up” Mama’s screaming. I hear the sirens but continue to stare at Beanie lying peacefully in Mama’s arms.
“Excuse me” I hear and I’m shoved by the EMS worker, who argues with Mama.
“Purple” Jackson yells in my face.
“What?” I mumble still staring at Mama; he turns my body to the hallway Billie and Franklin stand sobbing staring at the scene before us. I rush to them, shielding them from what I know they won’t understand.
The doctors are making Mama cry and there’s a police officer standing next to them. A woman wearing a suit with a stiff hairstyle watches with a disapproving look. My aunts and uncles, now sober, are enraged. I don’t understand. Jackson is leaning on the wall staring at the floor. This cold, hard, floor. Green walls with plastic flowers hanging from the ceiling. Mamas in handcuffs and sobbing; we catch eyes but I look away. She’s being drug away like a dog on a leash that won’t move. Franklin jumps up as if he wants to save her, but Jackson holds his arm.
“Sit down” he says as I glance their way. The way everyone is crying I can’t help but realize the truth, something happened to Beanie. I can see their lips moving but nothing is coming out. Pills. Mama tested positive for drugs. An investigation is going on at our house. Our uncles and aunts aren’t real so we have to wait at a foster home.
“What they mean Uncle Ronnie ain’t my real uncle?” Franklin asks, because they’re close. I know that Uncle Ronnie, Aunt Lee-Lee, Butter, and Aunt Vicki aren’t our relatives but Mama’s closest friends. Our real family hasn’t been around for years and I don’t know if they’re dead or alive.
“Just be quiet” Jackson tells him. I can see the hurt on his face. Beanie called him daddy and he’s worried. Billie has cried herself to sleep and rests heavily on my lap. Stiff Hair walks our way and I tense up; I don’t want us to go to foster care or to be separated.
“Come on children, you can go with me now?” she says with a polite smile. I hesitate, and Jackson exhales, shaking his head. Before we can answer, three very well dressed people step off the elevator.
“Is that Maureen?” Jackson asks, and I freeze because I didn’t recognize her.
Maureen Portier is our maternal grandmother, Jackson and I are the only ones that have ever met her or seen pictures. The sight of her, nose in the air, poncho thrown across her chest and a Louis Vuitton purse on her arm makes us sit up straight. Stiff Hair turns to see where our attention has turned. I watch the three of them. Neat hair. The women wear makeup and perfume. But all I can smell is money.
“Oh hello” she greets.
“Hello, I’m the children’s maternal grandmother,” she announces loud and clear, making Billie shift.
“Our what?” Franklin says as Jackson nudges him. The young woman with her is looking at each of us slowly, a look of disgust on her face. She’s wearing real gold earrings, a huge wedding ring and a short stiff haircut. She reminds me of Halle Berry, but real.
“Oh. You must be…” Stiff Hair’s voice trails off as she looks through a folder.
“Maureen Portier,” she says with attitude.
“Yes, nice to meet you Ms.-“
“Mrs.,” she corrects.
“I’m sorry Mrs. Portier,” Stiff Hair apologizes.
“Who do I speak to about my daughter and grandchild. I understand something has happened,” she asks, as Stiff Hair leads her to the nursing station with the man she came with, Halle Berry follows. Mrs. Portier walks over to listen to the mumbling. I keep quiet and stop breathing to eavesdrop.
“Ecstasy….dead…maybe thought they were M&M’s….our condolences.” Those are the only words I make out as my heart drops. Beanie always loved M&M’s and I would have to take them out of her hand if she found one on the floor or in the couch.
“Who are they?” Franklin asks as my eyes water.
“Mama’s family,” Jackson says. I know that sitting still is killing Franklin so his mouth is about to run.
“I never seen them before,” he states. “I ain’t going with no strangers” he says folding his arms.
“Shut up, you’re going wherever they tell you to.” We stare at the small crowd of people. Halle Berry is holding her chest and has a tissue in her hand. The Suit has his hand on Maureen’s back with his head down. Maureen is still keeping eye contact with the nurses. My mind drifts as Billie turns to a more comfortable position. She won’t understand when she wakes up. Poor Beanie. Lying somewhere by herself calling me.
“I’m here” I whisper closing my eyes picturing her smile.
“Well children you don’t have to worry about going with me, your family is here” Stiff Hair says with slight cheer in her voice. I’m relieved; I didn’t care where “the family” was taking us as long as we weren’t being separated.
“I don’t know them,” Franklin tells her.
“Me neither,” Jackson speaks up with a scowl on his face. I glance at both of them because I’m surprised; usually Jackson understands things and agrees with me. Apparently he hasn’t grasped this situation.
“I’m your Uncle Francois, your mother’s older brother,” The Suit says, finally coming over so that I can see his face. He looks like Michael Ealy except with a clean cut. His shoulders are filling out the suit and I can tell that he works out. Up close Jackson resembles him a great deal.
“And I’m your Aunt Dominique, you’re mother’s little sister,” Halle Berry says, forcing a smile. Her nose and eyes are red. She cried about Beanie without even knowing her.
“Franklin, and that’s my twin Billie”
“I’m Purple, I mean Pierre.” I speak up not wanting to say Purple because I hear Beanie’s voice when I do.
“Pierre, you’ve gotten so big and beautiful,” Aunt Dominique says with a big smile. She remembers me and I can’t place her face from anywhere before.
“And look at Jackson, how old are you now, thirteen?” she asks, turning to him.
“Yeah, fourteen in July,” he says with a fake deep voice. He’s going through puberty and has this annoying, scratchy voice.
“Wow, it’s been a long time,” she continues, but my focus moves to Maureen who is now sitting down. She’s talking with a doctor. Her face is tight and she’s nodding, staring at the ground. Details about Beanie. She’d only seen four years and now it’s over. Another tear.
“Pierre,” I hear I look up and brush it away. It’s Jackson who has called me but when I look at him he’s nodding at Aunt Dominique.
“Yes,” I ask.
“I asked how’s high school?” she repeats.
“It’s good,” I lie to avoid the ugly truth. Detroit Public School. Lazy welfare mother. No new clothes. Taking care of four children, now three.
“How about you Freddy?” she asks, looking at Franklin.
“That’s not my name, lady,” he says, as Jackson nudges him.
“I’m not a lady, I’m your Aunt Dominique,” she says in a snappy way that made me look at her. I know how Franklin is but I’m not used to people talking to him with attitude.
“Well, I ain’t neva seen you before,” he adds. He’s like Mama once they get started it’s hard to stop them. Mama once argued with a grocery store clerk until her voice went out and we still had to leave.
“I know and I want to apologize” she says just above a whisper. I watch the way she shuffles her feet.
After Franklin set her straight she walks over to Maureen and Uncle Francois. I remember him. I was five and Jackson was four. He held me as Mama argued with Maureen and rushed our things out of the house. I remember him trying to calm her down, and when he couldn’t, he looked in my face and smiled at me.
“Why are we still sitting here, I’m hungry?” Jackson mumbles.
“Me too, and what about Beanie are we supposed to just leave her here?” Franklin asks. I look to see that he’s serious; he’s always been protective of her.
“She’s not coming home with us, Franklin,” I tell him using my hand to cover Billie’s ear.
“She died,” Jackson says as we look at him. I wait to see his face drop and his eyes water as Jackson grabs him. I can’t look. Beanie made all of us happy when we were sad. She was our cheerleader. Mama called her “Love” because that’s what it felt like when she was around. Whenever one of us was sad or upset, she would give you a hug or kiss. She used to say everything with a smile when she wasn’t sucking her index finger. I would miss that wrinkled finger and the way she avoided touching you with it. I smile because I can see her switching hands while we cross the street.
“Children,” I hear, looking up to see Maureen in her shiny shoes and heavy perfume. The look in her eyes makes us once again straighten our backs.
“Yes,” I say.
“You’re going to come home with me,” she says nervously as we all look at each other.
“Okay, but who are you?” Franklin asks, exhausted with our new family introductions. A smile slides across her face. It’s my smile, the one I use after a sarcastic joke.
“I’m Mi Mi, your grandmother” she tells us.
It’s Friday night. Music blares from a broken speaker, no one cares to understand the words just feel the beat. Only old faces are allowed in Mama’s presence. New people make her nervous and me protective. The kitchen has turned into a carry out restaurant, with the neighborhood ordering my chicken and spaghetti. Today, Mama turned an age that she refuses to speak and act upon. I know her secrets, her strengths and living proof of her weaknesses.
“Purple, put some ice cubes in here for your uncle” Aunt Vicki yells over the music. Her eyes are half open, with a smile but she’s not happy just buzzing. She slings the cup hard causing the remaining alcohol to spill on her hand and drip on the counter. As I grab her a napkin, she licks it off. “You know damn well, I ain’t letting good liquor go to waste” she laughs as I drop four ice cubes in the red cup.
Playing cook, bartender, housekeeper and babysitter, not the kids but Mama. Tupac plays and they’re yelling the lyrics. Picture me rolling. This keeps them occupied while I clean the kitchen. We saw a roach a month ago and I refuse to chase them down again. We’ve been living in the same space for two years, which is the longest that we’ve ever lived somewhere. East Side. West Side. Highland Park. Southwest. But now the old home off Dexter is as stable as we could imagine.
“Purple” I hear a whisper. Knowing the voice before I see the face, Jackson walks into the kitchen taller in size but younger in age. My big little brother, we resemble to the point of twins and I don’t know why but it makes me happy.
“Stop whispering and go back upstairs” Jackson advises the voice.
“What’s up?” I ask turning to him.
“Somebody pissed all on the bathroom floor” he says angrily yanking open the cabinet under the sink. Jackson is another worker in Mama’s House. He fixes everything whether he knows how or not. If there’s a mouse present, so is Jackson. If there’s a spider too big, Jackson is even bigger. And when a mess is made that is too disgusting to clean, my little big brother is there to make sure we don’t live in it.
“So trifling” I mumble.
“Dang, we out of bleach” he grunts lifting up the empty bottle,that I bought last week.
“JACKSON, what the hell you doing down here, huh? Go upstairs with them like you suppose to” we hear Mama’s voice boom from behind us. Turning around to see the tall, slender person that created us and most of the drama we’ve endured.
“Somebody peed on the bathroom floor” he explains.
“Well clean the shit up, what the fuck you bothering Purple for she trying to clean up herself? Stop being so fucking lazy all the time” Mama yells. Jackson opens his mouth but shakes his head walking away. Mama vs Jackson is a match that has been played as long as I can remember. And no matter who was right, Mama always won.
“We’re out of bleach” I tell her.
“What the fuck do you want me to do about that at eleven at night?” Mama yells.
“Ma, why are you yelling, I’m just telling you” I say to her, being the only person to talk to her this way so she can understand. Low voice. Eye contact. Strong tone.
“Oh, shit just get some tomorrow. Hand me that Hennessey out the freezer” she says motioning towards it and staggering on the counter running her hands in the long frizzy hair that took me two hours to flat iron this afternoon. Wasted. She pushes the hair back looking like a lion awakening from sleep. Her eyes carried bags from having five kids and no husband. Sometimes she mumbles about no regrets but her spirit says differently. I grab the half drank bottle, pour her a glass and hand it to her.
“Do you want ice?”
“I said give me the bottle”
“I heard you, do you want ice?” I ask again, she cracks a smile and takes the glass sauntering back to the living room moving to the music. Mama drinks long and hard. Nothing can stop her at times. But I’m glad that every once in a while God makes me strong enough to accept the challenge.
“Purple” I hear the whisper again.
“What Franklin?” I ask walking to the hallway to see my youngest brother squatting down smiling up at me.
“We hungry” he says.
“My bad, give me five minutes” I tell him, wondering how I forgot to feed my children. Yes, mine. Mama had them but surely God gave them to me.
“Okay, Billie just wants chicken” he whispers, the sound of Mama’s laugh makes him jet up the stairs. To be caught at the grown up party was Treason without a Reason. Pulling out the paper plates, I set out four plates giving Jackson the most of everything and Beanie the least. Instead of a tray I use a baking sheet to carry the plates upstairs to the room that I knew they were in. Mine. I have a television that one of Mama’s boyfriends had no choice but to leave when she put him out.
Opening up my bedroom door, they rush me like birds to the sky grabbing the plates that they knew were theirs by the portions. Jackson was absent. Billie my little sister and one of my roommates grabbed her plate, smiling at me. She and Franklin are eight year old twins. Identical and both resembling a man none of us had ever met before. They share a warm brown complexion, light freckles with jet black curly hair. Franklin wore it in a taper with a curly top and I kept Billie in two long French braids on each side of her head. Mama calls her Pocahontas at times.
“Thank you Purple” she says.
“You’re welcome” I say leading, Beanie, our baby sister over to the broken chair and desk by the window. Beanie’s father was a nice man that went to jail while Mama was pregnant with her. Armed robbery. Mama says he didn’t do it but when he was around everything was new and shiny. Beanie looks like Mama, long skinny face light brown hair and sharp features. As sweet as she is, Beanie barely speaks. I’m concerned more than Mama. But that happens a lot around here. My room is our room Billie, Beanie and mine, since Mama lost her job we shared a bed instead of a bunk bed like Jackson and Franklin in the next room. But when Mama gets her taxes it’s first on the list. She worked at a Coney Island for a month but quit saying the owner didn’t like her and she didn’t have time for attitudes. Nonetheless, she’s expecting a lot of money back and I’m expecting my own bed.
“Thank you” Beanie says sucking her finger staring at the food.
“You’re welcome” as I lift her up, securing her on the half of chair.
“PURPLE!” I hear Mama yell.
“I’ll be back with water” I tell them as I hurry to the stairs, glancing in Jackson’s room to see that he is no longer lying in bed with his headphones. Making moves. Despite Franklin’s efforts to keep the room messy, Jackson is a neat freak. Mr. Clean. He hates clutter, piles and nasty smells. We didn’t hire him as the janitor, he elected himself.
“PURPLE!” Mama yells again as my feet stomp down the steps letting her know that the kitchen is empty.
“Yes ma’am?” I ask walking to see her holding the arm of a tall dark man, who rolls a blunt wearing sunglasses in our dimly lit living room.
“This is Chucky, you remember him?” she asks. After sizing him up, I remember him as the man she accused of stealing the bracelet my daddy bought her.
“I think I do” I lie to keep them from asking me anymore questions.
“She about as tall as you now” he laughs. Now I really remember him. Jackson nicknamed him Clown because he laughs after everything that he says.
“Yeah she is and Jackson is even taller. Where’s my son?” she asks with love in her eyes. I wish Jackson were here to see the look on her face. I’ve mistaken it for pride.
“Cleaning up a mess Beanie made” I lie quickly, so that she won’t go yelling for him as well.
“Oh, make Chucky a plate for me” Mama ordered. Restaurant manager.
“Sure, do you want spaghetti or chicken?” I ask. Waitress.
“Both, you know I love to eat, baby girl, it hasn’t been that long” he laughs. Non-paying customer.
“Sit down and get comfortable, baby” Mama says. I watch her pull him to the living room and the trouble isn’t too far away.
Mama is in a middle school relationship with Winston, our “father” for face. They met when she worked at Coney Island and when she got fired he became a regular at our restaurant. Unlike most of the men Mama introduced, Winston works at a GM plant and has a car that can fit most of us. He doesn’t act as a father just uses the words around strangers. Mama dates for Mama and we have each other. But at this moment Clown needs to leave before Winston gets here or he’ll never laugh again.
“Enjoy” I say handing him the food in a plastic butter dish, that we reuse as storage containers. Clown laughs at the dish but Mama doesn’t think it’s funny.
“Purple, give Chucky a plate and quit being rude”
“We’re out of plates” I say cutting my eyes at her. The day has been long and breaking up a fight before the police get here was something that I’m not interested in.
“I get it, I get it, Purple you’se a smart girl but don’t ever try to outsmart yo Mama, she’s always right even when she dead wrong” Chucky says laughing, which causes a tickle because it’s true.
“Shut the fuck up” Mama flirts rubbing his arm. The front door slams and I can smell Winston’s cigarette and sweat aroma before I turn around.
“Hey Winston” Uncle Ronnie yells glancing at Mama, who is still snuggled next to Clown.
“Whassup everybody, Angelique can I talk to you?” he says.
“No, gon upstairs can’t you see we trying to party” Mama said rolling her eyes and sipping her drink. I head to the kitchen as the crowd watches in silence.
“You wanna be cute in front of your friends?” he asks. Here we go. Ping Pong. Mama vs Winston. Although, Mama is wrong Winston has lost. They argue back and forth until the only people in the living room are them. Once the kitchen is completely clean I hear a struggle and walk to the hallway to see Mama hitting Winston as he covers his head, then pushes her on the couch.
“You don’t put your hands on me JACKSON!” she screams with tears in her eyes.
“Calm down and don’t call that boy to handle your mess”
“Don’t tell me what to do Purple go and get your brother”
“I’m outta here, woman you crazy as hell, to think a man gon put up with you and your ex-boyfriends after working overtime to keep the lights on.” He yells at her as she ignores him.
“Purple go and get your brother”
“No ma, he’s sleep”
“You don’t have to get anybody, I’m gone” Winston says with his hands up and walks out. Great, Winston was decent and always made sure we had what we needed aside from the food stamps. I glare at Mama who stares at me.
“You got something to say, since you in grown folks business?” she asks.
“Not at all, mama” I tell her heading to the kitchen to turn off the light.
“Until you’ve walked in my shoes, you cannot understand my blues” she said as I slowly walk up the stairs. She played an old Jazz song with every ruined relationship. I’ve heard it play eight times. Not sure how long she played it before. There was more to Mama’s story than the blank pages she wrote.
Monday morning. I stare over at the clock radio that reads 5:30am. The alarm won’t sound until 6:00 but between now and then it’s my time. Peace. No one asking for anything. Calm before the storm that I call my family. I slide out of the bed and away from my blanket which is actually Beanie curled up. She sleeps close and I don’t mind because no one can deny love to her. Slipping on my house shoes and grabbing my towel. We kept them in the bathroom until we realized that sometimes Mama’s men used them as their own. Jackson went off so bad that Mama had no choice but to keep a close eye on her overnight guest.
Once I close the bathroom door it becomes a room in another world. Four walls and a small window of meditation, within this room I can relax, think and admire myself without the immature comments from my siblings or those questions from Mama. “You better not be pregnant” she said, that one time when I was excited that I was losing the middle school weight. “No ma’am”. “You better not be, keep your legs closed at least until you get a job” she said. That was all the birth control I needed to keep my emotional and sexually thoughts to myself. Besides there was only one boy that I was interested in and he doesn’t even go to my school. Justin Baker, is a senior at King High School. I met him during an All-City honor society banquet and we talked the whole night about school, the future and being too smart for our families. I gave him my number and still waiting for the call. Even though that was three months ago, I would wait forever.
Prayer. Justin Baker. Planning my day. Menu for dinner.
“Yes” I sing, to the knock on the door it bursts open and I jump to see Mama running to the toilet and falling to her knees throwing up. I turn off the water, grabbing my towel and wet her rag. “Here” I whisper but she waves me off. I sit the rag on the edge of the tub and leave her with her troubles. Jackson comes out of his room holding his soap because he doesn’t use what we use. It’s not strong enough he says. Smells like girls stuff he says.
“Mama’s in there throwing up and Winston is gone” I tell him, the look on his face is a blank stare.
“Smart man” he chuckles. They didn’t have a relationship more like an understanding, small talk about sports and sometimes Jackson laughed at his jokes which was the most interaction he ever had with one of Mama’s friends. Walking into my room, Billie is sitting by the bed rubbing her eyes and the clock radio is singing loud. Beanie shifts. But she never wakes up to the siren.
“If you have to go pee do so before Jackson gets in there” I tell her. She hurries to the bathroom knowing that Jackson takes the longest because he handles other business. The kids at school hate wearing uniforms but I’m so grateful because the clothes I do own almost seem like a uniform but I make it work. Most of my clothes use to be Mama’s the other ones are birthday outfits or tax money splurges. I tried to get a job but Mama was working as well and she was worried that the kids would be home alone too long. Jackson works wherever they hire him, the main reason is because the taller he gets the more expensive his things become. His cool attitude and handsome face diverts the fact that his uniform shirts aren’t as white as they once were and he knows how to manipulate his pants to make them appear longer. But I’m learning that shoes are a big deal with him, a few of his friends have gave him a pair or two before, which made me want friends. While halfway dressed Beanie rolls over staring at me with a small smile lingering on her face.
“Good morning” I sing.
“Good morning” she mumbles trying to get comfortable.
“Let’s get ready for school” I sing. Although, she’s the youngest at this age Beanie is the easiest person to wake up besides Jackson. Franklin is of course the most problematic. The baby boy. The only person that eats breakfast is myself because by the time I make it to school our breakfast program is over.
“I’m so sleepy” Franklin whines while we walk down our quiet block.
“You should’ve went to bed at nine like the rest of us” Billie says.
“I wasn’t sleepy’ he says.
“Let’s play “When I grow up”” Billie sings jumping up and down with a whimsical smile.
“I don’t feel like playing” Jackson grunts.
“Then, you get to go first” Billie smiles. We can’t resist her demands, although she’s small, Bossy is her middle name. We never mind because according to her test scores Billie is a genius. A teacher at her school wanted her to get tested for a scholarship but Mama never finished the paperwork and I couldn’t forge it and show up as her guardian.
“Come on Jackson, it’ll make this walk quicker” I encourage, this game gives me hope as small as it may seem. I love thinking about our future as a family.
“When I grow up, I’m going to be rich” he mumbles.
“How rich?” we say in unison.
“So rich, I’ll have live alligators in my backyard” he says as we laugh.
“It’s supposed to be more realistic”
“Billie, you can’t tell somebody what their dreams” I remind her.
“Okay, whatever Franklin your turn”
“When I grow up I’m going to be rich?”
“So rich that I’m going to buy everybody a new house” he says.
“Make sure I have my alligators in the backyard” Jackson tells him.
“And I want heated bathroom floors” I say.
“And cartoons” Beanie yells as we stop to look at her. Shock. Whenever she speaks, it’s like hearing the first cry of a newborn baby. Sometimes it takes a whole day, other times Mama threatens to put her in a special school.
“All the cartoons you can watch” Franklin says tickling her cheek as she laughs. I squeeze her hand a little tighter, hoping that this year whatever had her tongue will finally let it go.
This school of mine sits sturdy and brown, holding future leaders, professionals, crack heads and single mothers. It’s true any of our lives can change from good to horrible in the blink of an eye. There’s a boy that was in my class last year that died of an overdose of codeine. Two of my middle school friends are mothers and both of the fathers are dead. Each day that I’m able to sit in this classroom and achieve something, I take advantage. Not just because I want a better future, but because I don’t know the future of my brothers and sisters.
“What have we decided on today Pierre?” Mrs. Alexander asks me. She’s short, fat with a weird choice in lipstick, but I’m closer to her than I am to Mama. If it wasn’t for her encouraging me, I was sure to drop out and get a job. That’s how bad things were last year.
“I still don’t know”
“You have time but I want to help you pull in these scholarships before it’s too late. I know that you’re thinking about home but this is your life and future we’re talking about”
“I know, I’ve written down my options it’s hard to think about going away to college right now”
“I agree that college may not be for everyone, but make good life choices should be. If you don’t want to go away to college there are community colleges and schools closer to your family.”
“I’ve looked up a few online, it’s just hard for me to pick a major with all the other major things going on in my life”
“At one point you must start thinking about Pierre” she says. Her words linger in my head just until I get to my next class. Selfishness. The word is foreign to me but it seems everyone expects me to leave my kid’s hanging. They’ll never understand that we’re all we got more than family. Like the last breath.
The smell of my “Pretty Peach” perfume dances past my nose, I bought it at the beauty supply. It wasn’t until Mama bought me a make-up kit with a few nail polishes and a bottle of perfume that I began making more of my appearance. Jackson and I share a lot of the same features and look like twins in most of our pictures when we were younger. Both tall, slender and yellow just like Mama, but with our father’s round face and thick eyebrows. We don’t know much about our father except for his features. But every once in a while Mama will tell us a story with a lazy smile in a daze. They were married. I still can’t imagine Mama as someone’s wife. She’s mean to most men and ignores the rest.
“My bad” Jackson says from behind me as I stand waiting for him. He’s sweaty and his shirt is open exposing the black t-shirt htat he wore as an under shirt.
“Where were you, the bus is coming?” I ask while we hurry to the stop.
“Hooping in the gym”
“Wow, Jackson when did basketball become more important than family?”
“Purple, this family is your life not mine” he says which makes me turn to look at him.
“What does that mean?”
“You like living with Mama and putting up with all that mess but as soon as I graduate me and Scoop are moving down South” he tells me. Pain. I can’t imagine life without my brother, who would I vent to? Jackson was the only person my age that I had a friendship with.
“It’s not that I like it Jackson, we’re family. I love y’all and I do what I have to do to make sure that we’re good. I would love to go do my own thing but who would raise the kids?” I ask him.
“Mama like she supposed to, that’s how messed up she got you, them her kids, Purple not yours” he tells me. Jackson is angry and I realize that someone said something to him or teased him. When we lived in the Southwest with one of Mama’s friends, we constantly were bullied by this huge family down the block and Jackson would come home almost every day saying how he wanted to leave and find our dad to live with him. It got to the point where Mama yelled that our father was dead, which caused a whole other problem.
“Jackson, we take care of each other. You can go on your way and live your life but right now my life is making sure that y’all are good until Mama gets herself together” I tell him as the bus pulls up.
“Good luck with that one” he says. Once we get on the bus, he stands up next to me staring out the window. I realize that it’s love that has him twister.
Dakari Wells. Homecoming Queen. Street Fashion Model. Jackson’s crush. From the first time he enrolled all he could talk about was Dakari Wells, but never said a word to her. I figured he finally got that guts to approach her and his feelings were hurt. It’s her loss but Jackson won’t realize until she’s knocking down his door. She dated boys that drove their own cars and made money the illegal way. I admit to having a crush on Stanley Ferguson, our neighborhood thug, he was nice to me said hello bought the kids ice cream from the truck. But I had too much drama already than to be Stanley’s ride or die chick. I’m good.
“Jackson, I know that you want to move away but I don’t know what I would do without you. At the end of the day all we have is this family. I know how she is but I don’t want Franklin, Billie and Beanie to not be taken care of”
“Purple, have it ever occurred to you that maybe if we weren’t around Mama might actually get her shit together”
“Yes, but I don’t think it’s a chance that I’m willing to take” I tell him, he shrugs his shoulders and puts his hands in his pockets.
“This shit gotta change” he mumbles, which lets me know that he’s rethinking his decision. I can breathe again. Jackson is my twin regardless of our two year age difference and because we share a father and mother I feel closer to him, like he completely understands me. I imagine this is what Billie and Franklin feel sometimes one is thinking what the other is saying. They call it Bonkers.
“It will one day”
“Purple..Purple..open your eyes” I hear a voice whisper, then giggling and shushing. I open one of my eyes to see Billie and Franklin smiling with bright smiles. It’s Saturday morning and the sun is pushing through the dark blue sheet nailed up to our window. The smell of morning breath is slipping into my nostrils causing me to sit up. Billie is sensitive and Franklin doesn’t care.
“Good morning” I mumble as they smile hard making me laugh, Franklin’s face is painted with dried up slob from the night before and Billie’s thin strands of hair are trying to make a teepee on top of her long braids. Both of them wearing pajama’s jumping up and down.
“Good morning” they yell as I glance to see Beanie is on her stomach, mouth opening unbothered by this morning introduction.
“Happy Birthday” I sing as they laugh. It’s their tenth birthday, which is as exciting for them as it is to me. Birthday Love. Our circumstances have made us humble but spoiled in some ways. Mama’s birthday rule is whatever you want goes, which still has its restrictions.
“Are you going to make our cake?” Franklin asks at 9am.
“Yes, double chocolate circle cake” I say pointing to the short list they gave me of what they wanted. It’s become a ritual in our home. You write a list, cross your fingers and hope Mama allow everything. But they usually give it to me if Mama isn’t here or her door is locked.
“Is Mama here?”
“No, her shoes and purse are gone too”
“She probably went to get our presents” Billie sings as they dance making me smile, because the list is still with me I doubt that Mama is out doing good deeds.
“Ok, go wash your faces and brush your teeth” I tell them. They rush out of the room as I grab the list that they wrote on the back of a grocery store receipt.
- Double chocolate circle cake
- Haircut- Franky
- My hair down-Bills
- All our friends over
- Pizza and Red pop
- Wrestling toys-Franky
- Two new Barbie’s with nice clothes
The list as simple as it looks on some days can be a challenge, we rarely have company over because Mama doesn’t like to look after us better yet someone else children. I get up and look out the window at our old neighborhood to see that the sun is peeking out. One of the first warm days of spring without rain and mud. The backyard will be the perfect setting for today’s festivities. After checking to see Jackson snoring under his covers, puts me at ease knowing that he’s here instead of in the streets.
I jump in the shower and throw on some jogging pants and an old t-shirt, our Saturday’s were heavy duty house cleaning days everyone has chores and the earlier we finish the more time we get to do nothing. The twins are already in the living room vacuuming and wiping off the television and coffee tables. They’re definitely in a good mood because Franklin is making sure the vacuum and sucking up every crumb and lint ball. The kitchen is my place but because I cleaned it last night, I sweep and mop then make room in the refrigerator for any left overs for tonight. Jackson comes downstairs holding Beanie who lays on his shoulder sucking her finger.
“The vacuum cleaner scared her” he tells me. Beanie hates the vacuum and expects Jackson to save her from it at all times. Once Franklin chased her around with it and it was the first time Mama heard her get upset, she screamed “LEAVE ME ALONE NOW”. We all had a good laugh that day and Mama always brought up the memory to make us smile.
“He’s almost done” I tell her. Franklin turns it off and Jackson puts her down but she grabs his leg still acting like a baby.
“Great question” I say shaking my head. Jackson is in the charge of the bathroom and the sweeping and mopping of all the floors in the house. Once the house smells fresh, we start getting ourselves together for the party.
“We’ll be back” Jackson says fully dressed with Franklin behind smiling.
“Where are y’all going?”
“To the barbershop” Franklin says smiling, he loves going with Jackson to the barbershop instead of by himself.
“Y’all got money?” I ask as Billie sits in a chair ready to get her hair blown dry.
“Yeah, I got a little” Jackson says as they head out.
“I know what I’m wearing” Billie says dancing in her seat as Beanie sits on the couch watching cartoons in her favorite overall’s holding her pink elephant.
“What?” I ask.
“Thank pink dress with the big sleeves”
“That was from Easter last year” I remind her.
“I know and I really like it” she says. I shake my head knowing that it’s her birthday, although she’s grown in a year I’ll do whatever to make it work for her. Two hours later and Jackson runs in with a fresh haircut dancing and acting silly because he’s feeling his birthday self. Billie sits on the couch not wanting to mess up her long, straight hair that took me too long to press even though I know once she goes outside it’ll be an afro on the top of her head. Beanie is sleeping on the couch, she takes a nap at the same time every day.
“Playing basketball down the street” Franklin says. I get in the kitchen to hide my worry, it’s been four hours and Mama hasn’t shown up yet. The sound of the twins yelling makes me hurry to see them standing on the couch looking out the window laughing.
“What?” I ask, the door opens and Jackson hurries in with Dollar Land bags. Confused until Mama walks in with grocery store bags.
“HAPPY BIRTHDAY, FRANKS AND BILLS” Mama yells with her arms open as they hurry to hug her excitedly. Jackson gives me a smile as I hurry outside to see Uncle Ronald getting bags out of his car.
“Hey baby girl, how you doing?” he asks.
“I’m good, I was getting worried about her” I tell him.
“I was too when she came calling me at eight this morning to run some errands” he says as I look in his trunk to see a big Toys-R-Us bag and two more grocery bags.
“You’re welcome, me and your auntie will be back for the party” he says. I hurry the toy bags upstairs and into her room. When I come back down Billie’s excitement has woke up Beanie.
“Look Purple, we got new outfits” Franklin says holding up the jeans and a blue button up plaid shirt and Billie has a pink plaid dress.
“Those are nice” I say as Mama watches smiling.
“Purple, there are some decorations in those bags for the backyard, Jackson says he’s going to make sure its nice back there and your Auntie Vicky is going to let us borrow two of her tables and chairs”
“Ok cool” I say.
“Mama can we have pizza?” Franklin asks.
“Yeah, I’m about to call them to put the order in now” she says getting up. This is the only time I see Mama move with purpose. Our birthdays always make her happy, I don’t know why but sometimes she’s more excited than us. Beanie is following Mama around as she turns up the radio to the local hip-hop station and starts emptying the bags. Billie and Franklin have hurried up the stairs to get dressed.
“I also bought y’all something to wear for the party as well” she says smiling. I turn to see the bag from Kidz Jungle, a clothing store that sold name brand clothes and we got our school clothes from.
“Thanks Mama” I say pulling out a pair of jeans and a t-shirt that read “Blessed” on the front of it. I didn’t care what it said, this was the first time I had something new in a while and I’m grateful. I handed Beanie that pink plaid dress like Billie’s, and she stripped down to put it on in the dining room making Mama laugh.
“I guess you like it, huh Love” she asks as Beanie blushes.
“Where’s Jackson’s?” I ask seeing the bag was empty.
“I gave him some money, he’s growing up and I don’t know his style” she mumbles. Usually that equates to Jackson’s clothes are too expensive for Mama’s money. After I get dressed in my new clothes and bake the cake, the guest begin to arrive. Mama ordered ten pizzas and some chicken. I’m worried that the cake that I made isn’t enough as I look out the back window to see the kids running around playing tag.
“Purple, run to the store and grab some cupcakes” Mama pulls the money out of her bra and hands me a twenty dollar bill.
“How many?” I ask.
“As many you can buy with that twenty” she says going back outside. I put on my jacket for the cool Spring weather ready to break in my new jeans. Jackson is still down the street playing basketball like we’re not having a party. The closest grocery store is three blocks away, which is a short walk compared to other places we had to walk.
“What’s up Purple?” I hear, knowing the voice before I look up. Stanley Wilson sits on his grandmother’s porch smiling at me dressed in an outfit that I’m sure Jackson wishes that he could wear for Dakari.
“Hey Stanley, how are you?” I ask, happy that I have my new outfit on.
“I’m good, whose birthday is it?” he asks seeing the cars and decorations.
“The twins turn ten”
“Straight up, I’ma have to come down to celebrate with my boy Frank” he says. As a kid, Franklin gets excited seeing Stanley driving his Regal with shiny rims and wearing nice clothes. All of the kids on the block look up to him and he’s cool about it, I’ve never saw or heard of him having an attitude.
“Yeah, make sure you come down the neighborhood is welcome” I tell him.
“I definitely will, where you headed?” he asks.
“To Save-A-Lot” I tell him.
“I can take you they said it might rain” he tells me as I glance at the sky to see it clear from clouds.
“You sure, I heard different” I say making him laugh.
“You can’t trust the weatherman” he says.
“You’re right, sure” I tell him. Stanley always tried to help me and even apologized to me for selling Mama weed once he saw how upset I was about it. He hopped off the porch and we walk over to his new car in the old hood. “How’s your grandma?”
“She’s doing good, just got out the hospital last week” he says. Mrs. Ferguson when in good health has babysat the kids a few times for me. She became a grandmother to all of us, gave me advice and money a couple of times and raised Stanley even though his parents are married.
“That’s good to hear, I’ll bring her some cake from the party” I tell him as we ride to the store. Out the corner of my eye I can tell that he’s nervous, changing the music twice for a five minute ride. Stanley is average height, with honey colored skin and his big smooth lips that the girls talk about at school. He always wears a hat and a pair of Cartier sunglasses, which are one of the leading causes of death in Detroit. Unlike most of the boys at school, he’s never said anything nasty or perverse to me and holds the door open. But I don’t like drug dealers.
“I’ll be right out” I tell him. The store is crowded but I manage to hop in the 12 items and less aisle, without that one person who can’t count to 12. I managed to get 24 cupcakes for fifteen dollars. I grab a pack of gum and stuff a piece in my mouth before I get back in the car with Stanley.
“Got everything?” he asks.
“Yes, thank you”
“You’re welcome, I see you out here taking care of your brothers and sisters and that’s some real shit. Not too many people can be so selfless, you feel me. Girls nowadays only worried about clothes and money but you keep it one-hunned with your family and I admire that” he says making me blush. I’m proud of myself but at the same time, I have no choice.
“Thank you, I appreciate that”
“No doubt and if you ever need something or in a situation that you can’t handle just hit me up” he says. I knew it coming. He feels sorry for me, for us. I’m sure Mrs. Ferguson talks about the “poor kids” down the street.
“Thanks, but we’ll be alright”
“I’m not saying it to say that you won’t be just letting you know that I’m a friend” he says pulling up to my house that has more people than before. Jackson and two of the boys he was playing basketball with are sitting on the porch.
“A friend, you can never have too many of those” I tell him, although I have none.
“Especially not the loyal ones”
“Do you wanna come and get a slice of pizza?” I ask him.
“Sure” he says as we get out the car and Jackson starts laughing.
“Ow Mama, Purple got a boyfriend” Jackson yells toward the house.
“Shut up, ugly” I laugh.
“What’s good, Jackson” Stanley says as Jackson nods at him. I know that just like Franklin, Jackson idolizes Stanley in a way. Dakari and her friends all wanted his attention but Stanley made it clear to everyone that money was the only thing he was chasing.
“Whattup” Jackson says.
“I need to holla at you about something” I hear Stanley mumble as I turn to them hoping my brother hasn’t started selling drugs.
“I’ll get with you” Jackson says. After telling my nosey family that Stanley is not my boyfriend, I’m surprised to see Mama orchestrating the games in the backyard and the twins having a ball. Beanie is in Auntie Butter’s lap eating pizza and rocking to the music from Uncle Ronald’s radio.
“I got the cupcakes” I tell her.
“Good, now we can turn up” Mama yelled causing all the kids to dance, making me laugh. I turn to see Stanley rocking from side to side with them eating a piece of pizza.
“Whassup Stan the Man” Franklin calls him.
“You know me, I’m just chilling Franky Blue” he jokes with him.
“Who is Franky Blue?” Billie asks them.
“That’s my gangster name” Franklin says.
“You’re not a gangster, you still scared to go in the basement” Billie says.
“Billie, stop” I tell her.
“You scared too” Franklin yells at her.
“I’m just stating facts” Billie says making us laugh and Franklin has this lost look on his face.
“Here’s something for your birthday” Stanley says giving them both ten dollar’s.
“OH SNAP” Franklin yells as Billie smiles.
“Thank you” they sing.
“You’re welcome” he tells them as they run to show Mama, who pins it on their shirts.
“Check you out baller” I tell him.
“You know I am” he says jokingly. Once the party dies down Stanley leave to talk to Jackson and we begin to clean up. The grown up party is happening and it’s my job to make sure the kids are good and our house is in order. Mama kissed Billie and Franklin after giving them the toys they asked for. They were in my room playing with their new gifts. Jackson hasn’t been back since his talk with Stanley. I sit on the front porch, enjoying the silence proud that Mama made sure the twins had a good birthday. Seeing her happy and making them happy makes me feel that one day she will be the mother that we all need.
The moon has spread a cool breeze across our city and causes me to close my jacket tighter. It’s 11:30 on a Sunday night. School will be over in two weeks. Countdown. This Detroit street is quiet now. We’ve had too many warm days behind one another and everyone is use to the weather. The walk that I’m taking seems long, I take faster strides because Jackson is not at home and I left Franklin in charge. It wasn’t the first time and if Mama keeps this up it won’t be the last. The sign outside of the door reads “Come as a friend, leave as family”, I’m pretty sure that’s why Mama spends most of her time here. The door burst open and Brawny appears, dark, tall and thick. He’s the biggest man I’ve ever man and also the most intimidating.
“Hi Brawny” I say as he exhales, his eyes are sad but he cracks a smile.
“Hey girly, come on in here, she’s in the back” he mumbles, trying to keep a steady tone. But his words are shaky. Pity. Those poor kids. That poor family. I’m used to strangers shaking their head with crooked smiles, trying not to stare but still staring. It doesn’t bother me, sometimes it’s a comfort to know that some people understand. I exhale deeply, the bar is half empty or half full depending on how you want to look at it. Maggie, the bartender and owner’s wife is on the phone turning her back on me. She hates Mama and the fact that she drowns in her problems here. But Joe, her husband sits at the table with Mama was she lies her head down on her arms. One of her shoes is halfway off her foot and her hair is messy.
“Hi Joe” I whisper.
“Hello, Purple” he says standing up to squeeze me. Joe is a man that seems like a great dad. Anytime I saw him out in the neighborhood he was telling Stanley to get out of the streets and preaching to Jackson about staying in his books and away from girls. He and Maggie live in a big old house around the corner that they made look better than any other house on the block. “I got her to calm down, she got in an argument with a guy but he’s gone and you know how yo Mama is, nothing stops her mouth from running but liquor” he says.
“Come on Mama” I say walking closer to her. I touch her shoulder. Hard like wood covered in a knit sweater that I picked out at the Salvation Army for her for Christmas. Happy to see her wear it, sad to see what’s stained on the front of it.
“Purple, what you doing in a bar?” she asks in a stern tone, that for a minute scares me.
“To take you home”
“Come on Angie” Joe says grabbing her arm as she slow gets up. Stumbling back, we catch her as she pushes her wild hair to the back. I flat ironed it for her last night only for it to be a frizzy afro as usually.
“I’m good” she mumbles to us snatching away from me and staggering out the door as I watch her. Joe glances at me but for some reason my head is stiff.
“Thanks Joe” I say.
“Be safe, sweetie” he says patting me on my back as I hurry after Mama, who’s already out the door.
“I will” I mumble trying to catch up with a woman that’s now chasing more than liquor. In front of me Angelique Damier Portier-King staggers as if she’s a zombie every once in a while she yells something loud enough to catch my ear. I stay behind her not in shame but in safety, because I know she’s seeing double, she might not see me at all. We once fought, I lost and I’m not ready to get back in the ring again.
“Oh shit, what the fuck is this?” I hear a boy laugh followed by more laughter. I look up to see a group of boys on Stanley’s porch. As we get closer, two of them go to my school Marv and Randy, both joke around more than they learn. Exhale. They’re losers. Keep walking. Almost home.
“STAN, COME SEE THIS SHIT!” Marv yells as I pick up the pace to show that we are together. Stanley walks on the porch to see us walking pass the house.
“She tweakin!” Randy laughs.
“Come in the house y’all” Stanley tells them as I glance at them.
“Just come on, nigga” he hurries as they go in the house. I look up and he nods at me as I walk next to Mama, happy that he stopped the jokes. I’m used to people pointing, laughing and tripping out over Mama and her ways. It’s my siblings who aren’t strong enough to protect their feelings.
“Fuck they was laughing at” Mama slurs.
“I don’t know” I mumble, if I tell her why she would be down the street banging at their door demanding respect and smelling like throw up. Once I open the door, Franklin pops out with a bat in his hand and a mean look on his face.
“Hey it’s me, go up to bed” I whisper to him blocking his view of Mama.
“Did you find Mama?” he asks.
“I wasn’t never lost, Purple move out of my way” she whines.
“Franklin GO!” I yell as he hurries up the stairs without looking back. I open the door and Mama pushes through and heads to the couch to lie down.
“Damn room spinning” she mumbles.
“Come on, let’s go to your room”
“That was a long ass walk, Purple leave me here” she says.
“No Ma, you have throw up on your sweater and I don’t want you to put it on the couch” I tell her, helping her up. She snatches away and looks up at me.
“Whose couch is it?”
“Mama, you don’t’ want throw up on your couch” I remind her.
“Just leave me the fuck alone”
“TAKE YO BLACK ASS UPSTAIRS AND LEAVE ME ALONE” she screams, standing up over me. The look in her eye causes me to walk to my room. “IF I SAY I’M SLEEPING ON MY GOHDAMN COUCH THAT’S WHAT I’MA DO…YOU AIN’T MY GOHDAMN MAMA, I’M YOURS” she continues to yell as I close my door. While getting undressed, flashbacks of the faces in the bar, Marv and Randy, even the way Mama looked at me caused a lump in my throat. Hot face. Warm tears. What starts as just tears flowing turns into sobbing and slobbing. I grab my pillow sitting by my bed on the hardwood floor that creaks beneath me. I’m hoping each tear that I shed will add more strength to me. Prayers to God with each drop. A tap to my shoulder causes me to jump and look up to see Beanie sucking her finger. She stands in front of holding out one sheet of toilet paper torn on the ends. The thin sheet of paper is what she brings whenever we ask her to get us tissue as if that one small piece will clean up this big mess that I’ve made.
“Thank you” I whisper, Beanie hugs me with her small arms which still pull me in tightly.
“Welcome” her little voice says as she hops into bed. Sitting up, the moon peeks through watching everything that has happened, in a few hours the sun will rise and another day will come. Another day to do this all over again.