Every day after me and Grandad sit on the porch and eat fried green tomatoes, my cousin teaches me how to draw. He makes dashed lines in the shapes of skyscrapers, men with gold chains, girls with big breasts. I connect the dashes until the picture is complete. My cousin tells me to get a new sheet of paper and draw what I just traced. I do. He says, You need to work on your buildings but you draw some good titties.
Grandma is in the living room. She usually smells like cottage cheese. But today she smells like chitlins. I eat so much vinegar with my chitlins my lips turn white. Grandma lights a long cigarette and stabs herself in the stomach with needles. She says it’s insulin. She listens to a gospel song and sings, I’m coming up on the rough side of the mountain. My cousin says, She plays that goddamn song every day. She does. I like it. I ignore him and keep drawing titties.
The next day after me and Grandad sit on the porch and eat fried green tomatoes, my cousin gives me another lesson. He makes dashed lines in the shapes of a man with a knife, a woman in a bathtub, a keyhole. I don’t want to trace these shapes. He grabs my hand and makes me. He tells me to get a new sheet of paper and draw what I just traced. I don’t. He grabs my hand again. He says, You need to work on your stab wounds.
I run through the house crying. I want to tell Grandma but she’s stabbing herself in the stomach. I run outside and tell Grandad. He stops playing cards with his friends and takes me in the garden. Here, he says, have a little wine. I need to tell you something, Grandad explains. When your cousin was five he saw some shit that messed him up. So dont worry too much about it, he been drawing that shit for years. Grandad tells his friends, Card game canceled – gotta fry some tomatoes for my boy here. See you suckas tomorrow, and dont forget my goddamn money, nigga.
My cousin is an artist. He says, You draw some good knives but you still need to work on your stab wounds. Lemme get one of them tomatoes. Check out my new Air Jordans. You need to learn how to rap. She plays that goddamn song every day.
In class I sit behind Rhonda. She always raises her hand. I get to stare at her arm. I kick the back of her seat so she can turn around. I can look at the side of her face. I keep going to the pencil sharpener in the front so I can look at her eyes when I walk back.
I draw two pictures the same. One for me, one for Rhonda. I draw us holding hands in front of a house. Out of the chimney comes smoke shaped like hearts. A big puffy apple tree beside the house. On the tree is a heart with our initials. I start to color. Rhonda first. Hair yellow. Skin peach. I give Rhonda the picture. She smiles.
I run up the steps to my house with the picture flapping. My mom looks but don’t say nothing. She shows my stepdad and says, Look at this shit. What the fuck, my stepdad says. He shoves a black crayon into my hand. His fat hand grabs mine and makes me color over Rhonda’s yellow hair. Same to her face with a brown crayon. He says, Now thats better. My mom says, Shonuff is.
The cable is off again. Me and my sister turn the knob to all thirteen channels, nothing but static. I aint playing Barbies with you, she says, cuz last time you made He-Man beat up Barbie. Good, I say, I dont wanna play that stupid shit anyway. Well, she says, I’ll just pretend to watch teevee. Thats stupid, I say.
My sister sits in front of the teevee. The static is loud. She leans in and says, Zoinks. I sit next to her, What are you watching. None of your beeswax, she says. She starts singing, We got some work to do now. Can I watch too, I say. Okay, she says, but only if you be Shaggy and Scooby, and I’ll be the smart ones.
She puts her hands on the steering wheel and says, Gang, we’re almost to West Virginia. The mayor called us to investigate a couple of monsters thats been scaring kids all over town. I say, Ruh-roh, Raggy. My sister goes on, Lets split up and look for clues. Velma and Daphne, come with me. Shag and Scoob, start at the cemetery. I chatter my teeth and say, Ruh-roh, not the remetery. My sister says, Gang, we found some clues. We followed a little ugly boy and a pretty girl into a house. We spotted the monsters when they chased the boy and girl out of the house yelling, I’ll give you something to cry for. So gang, heres the plan. My sister whispers something in my ear I can’t understand. Then she says, Got it, Shaggy and Scoob. Zoinks, I say.
Okay gang, my sister says, we will rescue the kids from the house. But first we gotta sneak in and set up booby traps. My sister stops to think. Okay, she says, I got it now. We will go in and let the monsters see us rescuing the kids. Then they will chase us. Scoob, while theyre chasing us I want you to take this rope and trip them. I say, No way Fred. My sister goes into the kitchen and comes back with a cracker and says, How about a Scooby snack. She throws the cracker in the air and I try to catch it in my mouth but it falls on the floor. I pick it up and eat it. She goes on, After Scoob trips them with the rope, there will be oil and banana peels on the ground and they will slide down a ramp into a dumpster filled with nails and rats and barbwire. And thats when we will take they masks off.
We run through the house saying Zoinks and Yikes. We jump on the couch and dive off. We stick our heads around a corner and run in place. We run in and out of closets. My sister says, Now, Scoob. I put the jump rope in my mouth and dive in front of the door. My sister says, Whooaa – slippy-slip, down the ramp they go. She makes the deep voice of the monsters, Why is these rats bitin my ass – Who put barbwire in this goddamn dumpster. My sister grabs a baseball bat and opens the trash can. She says, These monsters look like our mom and stepdad. C’mon Shaggy, take them goddamn masks off.
Happy Little Trees
Bob Ross is on. He has paint. I don’t. First I grind flowers with a rock but it don’t work. I chew and chew dandelions. Spit mixes into yellow paste. I chew grass. I chew mulberries. I chew wild onions. They don’t make color so I swallow. Tingles back of the neck and waters my eyes. Chew coal. Chew red clay. Chew what a grasshopper chews. I chew a grasshopper. Crunchy, then juice squirts to back of throat. The paste is chunky brown green white. Lick off hand and chew until smooth. Open jar, chew lightning bugs. Wait till night when they light, then rip off the ass, smear it on my face.
I’m trying to teach my sister a song I recorded off the radio. Listen real close, I say.
One two, she says, tell me something about coins and a jackpot.
Goddammit, I say, you got it wrong – its not that hard.
Shut up, she says, this is stupid. Why do I need to learn this anyway.
Cuz its important like the Pledge of Allegiance.
I know the chorus, she says, Now that we found love what are we gonna doo.
That aint enough, I say. You gotta learn the whole thing.
Why. Since you already know it, you rap and I sing.
No. What if I cant talk one day. And if you dont know it, then who will.
Okay, she says, just go slow next time.
I rap the first two lines. She gets it. I add more. She gets that. After an hour she gets the last lines: I’m not quite sure of what is going down, but I’m feeling hunky-dory bout this thing that I found. I rewind the tape and we rap the song three times perfect.
She says, If you actually found love what would you do with it.
Thats a stupid question.
No it aint, she says. Just answer it. What would you do with love.
My mom and stepdad have a baby so we move in with my stepdad’s mama. The house is built on the side of a hill. The house is leaning. The house has a kitchen floor that is slanted with the tops of nails pushing through brown linoleum. The house has a basement with a coal furnace. The house is white with two bedrooms upstairs, a bedroom and kitchen and living room downstairs. My mom and stepdad and the baby sleep in the living room. LaShawn and Jamar are my stepdad’s niece and nephew. They sleep in the bed with my stepdad’s mama in the bedroom downstairs. In the same room me and my sister sleep on the floor. Nobody sleeps upstairs.
When I put coal on the fire before bed a rat waddles along the wooden beams and stops to look down at me. Now while I’m trying to sleep I hear the rat scratching and chewing wood under the floor.
At five my stepdad yells to wake me to put coal on the fire. He says I didn’t fix it good enough last night at one. He says if I fixed it good enough I could sleep till five thirty. I walk outside and go to the basement. I shovel two buckets of ashes from the bottom of the furnace and dump them over the hill. Then I fill seven buckets of coal and dump three on the fire so it will last until I come from school.
Me and my sister, and LaShawn and Jamar, come from school. My stepdad yells because the fire went out. He said he and his mama and the baby was cold all day. That I was trying to freeze them to death. LaShawn and Jamar ask me why can’t I fix the fire right. My mom tells me I better get my shit together. I go to the basement and the fire is out. I put too much coal on and smothered it. I need to build a new fire.
There’s an old house next door where I get dry wood. With the axe I chop brittle walls, kick through walls, chop up the floor. Wake the rats. Their nest is tangled straw, sticks and dry leaves. In it is chewed-up Bible pages. Empty can of potted meat. Cracked pork-chop bones. Half-eaten Barbie head.
At five the next morning I put three buckets of coal on the fire so it will last until I come from school.
Shake to Erase
I did something bad, at school or at home, maybe school, probably home.
I’m thinking of how to draw a face on my Etch A Sketch how to draw the eyes and eyebrows without drawing a line across the top of the nose I’d have to draw one eye and make the eyebrow really bushy then from the corner of the eye I’d have to draw the nose down and around and back up and do another eye then I’d have to trace the nose back down to the bottom and make a mustache so the line won’t show where it need to connect to make lips but how do I get to the chin and the outside of the face without showing a line.
Start over Shake.
Stepdad hits me again, extension cord, or switch. Oh, you aint cryin. You think you a man, I’ll beat you like one.
Start with the hairline then draw a beard like how I’d do the mustache then draw the lips up to the nose and eyes then do the eyebrows last trace the nose back down to the lips and chin and draw a neck then draw a city in the background draw lines up and across and down and make different sizes of skyscrapers then trace over the top of the man’s head and draw more buildings on the other side then turn the knob all the way to the edge and go all the way up up and draw an airplane in the corner then turn the knob all the way over over to the other corner and draw a sun. Start over Shake.
I pull up my white long johns. Stripes soak through. Red zebra.
Two Times Two
My uncle, Mom’s brother, picks me and my friend Mack up from school early. Mack’s dad is driving. He says we gotta go to Pocahontas, Virginia to handle some business. He stops at the filling station. My uncle gives me and Mack some money and tells us to buy a big bag of Funyuns and MoonPies and Salem 100’s and a bottle of Wild Irish Rose, the big bottle.
Mack’s dad speeds downhill around curves while we slide back and forth across the backseat and raise our hands like on a roller coaster and we say, Whoo, faster faster. He goes faster. We pass around the Funyuns and eat our MoonPies. Mack says, Dangit, Dad, we aint buy no sodas, I’m thirsty. My uncle hands the bottle of Wild Irish Rose to us and says, Dont drink too much, this aint no Kool-Aid.
With both hands Mack tips the bottle to his lips and says, Ahh, it taste like Kool-Aid. He gives me the bottle. It do taste like Kool-Aid, I say. They laugh. I give the bottle to my uncle, he drinks, gives it to Mack’s dad, he drinks, gives it to Mack, he drinks, gives it back to me. It goes like this until we get to Pocahontas.
We cross train tracks and park behind a brick building. The roof is caved in and windows half busted out. Poison ivy crawls up the side. My uncle says, You turkeys hold tight, we’ll be back in a few ticks. Mack, I say, look at your dad. We make fun of Mack’s dad because he has a jerry curl tied in a baby ponytail and wears the same thing every day: a red-and-black track suit and black Chuck Taylors. His pants are high and you can see his white socks. His stomach sticks out and he never wears a shirt under his jacket. He wears a gold rope chain with a bunny on it resting in his curly chest hair. Mack says, So, look at your uncle. My uncle got on blue jean bell-bottoms with a brown leather jacket. A blue-jean floppy hat. He don’t have a shirt on under his jacket either. They walk to a house with white paint peeling off. Half of the porch droops. A big Doberman is tied to a tree in the dirt yard. It keeps barking and running until the chain yanks it back.
Mack says, Lets see if we can bust out the rest of the windows. We throw rocks at the top windows. Mack is the first one to hit glass. He says, Thats why I’m the pitcher and you play leftfield. So, I say, I betcha I’ll hit way more than you. We throw more. He keeps hitting glass. I don’t. Mack says, I wanna practice my fastball. I find a broken broomstick next to the brick building. Mack collects a shirt-full of coal and rocks from the train tracks.
Mack throws a piece of coal. I swing, but it feels real slow. I’m getting a little woobly. See, Mack says, I told you my fastball was fast. Mack raises his leg to pitch but he woobles a bit. He laughs, I dont know whats wrong with me. He throws a piece of coal high in the air. I swing. Hit. It explodes. Dust powders my face. Mack laughs. Me too. Mack throws another. I miss. Mack says, You like Rhonda dontcha. Hell no, I say, who told you that. I seen that picture with yall holding hands, he says. I aint draw no picture of nobody, I say.
Whats taking them so long, I say. I dont know, Mack says, but I’m getting thirsty again. I think they left that bottle in the car, I say. We get the bottle and sit on the steps of the brick building. I drink, give it to Mack, he drinks, gives it back. It goes like this until it starts to get dark. You ever smoke before, Mack says. I took a puff of my uncles Salem one time, I say. I smoke all the time, he says. We search the car for the Salems but don’t find none. We can smoke leaves, Mack says, my cousin do it all the time. Mack tears a piece of paper out of his notebook. He picks some poison ivy off of the building. He rolls it into the paper and licks the seam. Thats nasty, I say, I dont wanna smoke your spit. I have to do that, he says, so it will stick. Mack lights the paper. He sucks on it. Coughs a little cough. Smoke rolls out his nose and mouth. He gives it me. I do the same but don’t cough. Mack says, You didnt inhale. You gotta make the smoke go in your lungs. I try again. Take a deep breath, Mack says. I choke. Smoke shoots out my mouth and nose. I drool on my shirt. Eyes water. I look at Mack. His face is melting. Mack smokes, gives it to me, I smoke, give it back. It goes like this until Mack’s dad and my uncle stumble out with their arms around each other. Their slow brown faces laughing and smoking.
In the car Mack’s dad says, What happened to all the Rose. My uncle laughs and says, Them turkeys drunk it all. Oh well, Mack’s dad says. My uncle says, Shit, we forgot to tell yall turkeys do ya homework. What yall got anyway. Um, I say, we sposed to be learning our times tables. Oh yeah, Mack says, we gotta do these worksheets. I hate times tables, I say, its too hard. My uncle says, Aw hell, it aint that damn hard. He takes out a pack of Salems and says, Look, its twenty cigarettes in this one pack. If you had two packs how many would that be. Forty, I say. Good, he says, you just did twenty times two. Now if you had three packs, how many is that. Mack says, Sixty. Good, my uncle says, thats twenty times three. Now do the same with all the times tables, just keep adding. See, that shit is easy aint it. Mack’s dad turns the yellow light on in the top of the car so we can do the worksheets. All the way home my uncle makes us recite all the twos to the twelves over and over.
Mack’s dad drives up on the hill to drop me and Uncle off. Everybody is in the street with the sheriff. My mom runs up and slaps my uncle in the face, Where the hell yall been, she says, I thought his dad kidnapped him, why you aint tell nobody you picked him up, you drunk muthafucka. My uncle says, Be cool, Jack. That boy is fine. My mom slaps him again. My uncle says, I said chill the fuck out. He did his homework and we fed him. My mom says, I had enough of you, you fuckin drunkard, got my kid runnin the streets, had me thinkin his dad kidnapped him. My uncle grabs my shoulders and kisses me on the forehead. He hugs me and says, Alright Turkey, get some rest and have a good day at school tomorrow. My lungs and my throat feel weird. My mom grabs me and says, Look at me boy, whats wrong with you. I throw up on her feet.
My stepdad has a long white Chrysler with cushy green seats. He picks all the kids up on our baseball team from all their houses. We pile onto each other’s laps. Music is blasting and laughing while he swings the car around curves. He starts practice by hitting balls to us in the infield, then outfield. The ting of the ball on the aluminum bat sounds like the slap on my forearm for mosquitoes. Then we run laps, giving him a high five each time we round home plate. On the way home he buys each of us a bag of chips. He does the same thing the next day and the next day. He does the same thing during football season.
Jamar and my sister are in the same class. We come from school and Jamar tells everybody that my sister stood on her desk and took her clothes off and sang, Do the Humpty-Hump. She was just like this, he says and stands in the chair and twists his hips and rubs his stomach while pulling up his shirt. My mom says to my sister, You a whore, huh, showin ya ass in public. Jamar keeps dancing on the chair and saying, Yep, she was just like this.
Some words are boiling in my belly and pushing up through my chest, my chest tries to trap these words, but these words keep pushing up like puke, and my mouth spews, Stop fuckin lying Jamar.
Watch ya fuckin mouth, my mom says, who told you talk when aint nobody talkin to ya little dumb ass. Stupid muthafucka, my stepdad says, you the fuckin liar. You gonna get it now, my mom says. LaShawn and Jamar laugh. My stepdad says, I know thats right, you betta whoop his ass before he try to whoop yours.
My mom tells me to pull my pants down and bend over the stool. She is having a hard time choosing between the belt and the extension cord. Until my stepdad says, Use this, and gives her a big stick. I’m thinking of how to draw a face on my Etch A Sketch.
Last night I dreamed that me and my sister were in front of the house playing hopscotch. After I won, cuz I always win, we sat on the porch. We were laughing. Somebody drives up and shoots my sister in the chest.
I wake up the next day and while we walk down the hill to the bus stop I keep looking at my sister to see if she is okay. She looks at me and says, You okay. Yeah, I say, why. Cuz, she says, last night I had a dream that me and you was in front of our house playing hopscotch. And after I won, cuz I always win, we was sitting on the porch laughing. And somebody drove up and shot you in the chest.
Everyone is downstairs crying. I walk upstairs to Grandma’s room. It is dark. Her dirty pink house shoes are lined up by the nightstand like she just got into bed. The covers on her side are pulled back like she just got out of bed. I leave and ask my mom how Grandma died. My mom says she just turned yellow and died. What, I say. You heard me, she says, she just turned yellow and died. I will never eat dandelions again.
We have a new girl that just moved from Africa. Gambia. I looked it up in my atlas and it looks like a crooked little finger in the middle of Senegal. Her name is Anter Jatta. I say it over and over. Anter Jatta. She is really dark and pretty. Everybody else says she is black and ugly. Buck says she is so black if she wore yellow lipstick she would look like a cheeseburger. He says this in front of her because she don’t understand English that much. She smiles. Her teeth are really white and straight.
I make sure I wear my African sign every day. I even wear my Afro pick with the fist on the end. At recess by the monkey bars I say to her, My beautiful Sister, what is it like in the Mother Land. The man tries to hold us down in America. I know about Senegal too. She smiles.
I walk back to the basketball court and Buck says, I see you over there tryin to hook up with that African booty scratcher. No way, I say, I was just telling her how black she was. Its okay to hook up with her, he says. Buck knows a lot because this is his third time in sixth grade. He explains, She probably got some wet jungle pussy, its neon pink. Can you imagine how wet that pussy hair is. You can swing from it like vines. All African girls cut they pussy hair in the shape of a African sign, they even dye it red, yellow, and green.
When recess is over, me and Buck walk by Anter Jatta. I raise my fist and say, Solid. Buck says, Whats up, jungle pussy. She smiles.
We have one homeless man in our town. Everybody calls him the Man in Black. Because that’s all he wears is black, most of the black is coal dust, plus he is dark skinned. He is really tall and his dirty hands look like bear paws and his big boots thud the ground with each stride. He lives in a saggy brown canvas tent next to the creek at the bottom of the mountain. In the winter you can see the blue flame from his kerosene heater glowing inside the tent. He never talks to nobody.
I see him in the store sometimes buying bread and baloney with a hundred-dollar bill. Thats because he gets a crazy check, they say. Some people say he went crazy in the war. Some say he just went crazy. Some say he sold his soul to Satan. My uncle says he is a righteous revolutionary brother who spits in the man’s face. My grandma says he used to be married to a white woman and she took everything he had and now he don’t want shit to do with nothing white, especially no stankin-ass white folks.
When I’m behind the Man in Black in the store he stinks so bad my stomach hurts. He turns around, looks down at me, sees me frowning and covering my nose, and says, I dont smell no worse than ya drunk-ass uncle.
My aunt, Mom’s sister, says me and my sister are in trouble and we need to come down to her house asap. I already know why. And I told my dumb-ass sister not to call the Care Bear Hotline. Imma whoop yalls ass good when you get back, my mom says, You ran up her phone bill a hundred dollars. My aunt says, Dont worry, Imma take care of it.
While we walk to our aunt’s house I keep telling my sister she is stupid and I’m gonna say I aint have shit to do with it. She knows our stepdad don’t like us going down there, and you done fucked it up, I say. Shut up, she says, you was there so its your fault too.
We walk in our aunt’s house and she is sitting on the couch with the phone bill on top of a book in her lap. She takes off her glasses, Why’d you do it. My sister says, I dont know, I’m sorry. I know youre sorry, she says, but you know why you called the Care Bears. Um, my sister says, I guess I just wanted to talk. Well, my aunt says, dont worry, this is a diminutive problem we can take care of. Diminutive is my aunt’s favorite word. She says it a lot. Especially when she talks about her shot glasses she collects when she travels. Cmon in the kitchen, she says. We walk through the hall past her long bookshelf. Oh, she says, I have a glass from San Francisco to add to my diminutive glass collection.
My aunt starts frying fish and telling me and my sister about a new book she is reading. A moving mystery, she says, but with literary sensibilities. I’m trying to write a book too, I say, its kind of a mystery, cuz I don’t know whats going to happen, its diminutive so far cuz I just started, but I want it to be not diminutive when I finish. Well hell, she says, you gotta show me this book.
We all sit at the kitchen table eating fried fish, hot sauce and little bones and grease everywhere. My aunt leaves and comes back with the telephone. Here, she says to my sister, you can call them again if you want.