The clock on the nightstand read 3:59 as I lie in bed, restless and sticky from the sweat that had moistened my nightshirt and sent me to the sink to refill my water glass. It was March, but the heat that choked the room and constricted my throat reminded me of Independence Day. Only then, it was customary to swelter on the grass, blanket to blanket, among the crowd of others waiting for the fireworks to begin; staring into the sky, convinced the bombs bursting in air were meant for us too.
I turned onto my left side, watched as the red illuminated numbers increased by one digit then closed my eyes. When I opened them again, the room’s tropical air was accompanied by thick smoke. The fieriness was more intense than before. My bearings were askew as I leaped from the bed and found no floor beneath me. The next day’s clothes that I had laid across a chair, the dresser, and mirror were barely visible through the haze. I saw a reflection of a woman I vaguely recognized, hands out in front of her body, searching for a safe path to take.
“What’s this about?” I asked. The woman did not answer. She disappeared, and I heard wood crackling from somewhere inside the smoke that threatened to asphyxiate everything I had an obligation to live for. Without using words, muffled voices dared me to go to where my son lie helpless beyond my current reach.
“He’s innocent,” I pleaded.
“Yes, but his blackness,” something replied deep inside the darkness.
The hallway walls closed in on me as I made my way through the mist of judgment toward a room I had painted blue and adorned with symbols of innocent maleness. As I got closer to where the voices escaped, they morphed into a muffled roar that grew in power and decibels. Perhaps they were the world cheering on my son.
I touched the doorknob and burned my hand. I opened the door and entered nevertheless. Inside, no signs of encouragement were present. The signs were violent, angry, ghastly. They were the combined catcalls of the downtrodden, the helpless, the discarded. The forgotten, the given up on. The marcher, the kneeler, the locked up. All of whom had congealed within the beasts that claim victory, despite futile wars of those willing to lay down their lives in battle.
I forced myself to enter the room, completely black except for the white haze that obscured my view but not my courage. I never bothered to consider the strength I would need to conquer the beast once I was face to face with his inalienable rights. It never occurred to me how unprepared I was to engage a monster that refused to fight fair and had inherited the privilege not to do so. A beast, so diabolically evil, that it has twisted declarations millions believe in and used the result to convince the rest of us that it was right and we were hopeless.
The monster’s gruesome roar gripped my chest, frightened me, but I had no choice but to raise my sword. If I did not rescue my son, there would be no one else to do it. I would perish either way. The last time I had felt fear so compelling, I was my son’s age and had happened upon a small boy’s body sprawled at the bottom of a crystal clear pool. I wanted to save his life too, but could not swim nor overcome the fear of drowning along with him. One never forgets the sensation of profound helplessness.
This time would be different. My son was different. I was willing to hold my breath as long as it took to save his life. I pushed hard on the bedroom door, hoping to crush the beast waiting on the other side. My son was in his bed. His body contorted by the gravitational pull of the world, yet impervious to it. Something invisible had a firm grip on his limbs, but his mind had not yet been taken. I grabbed my son’s left arm and leg and tried to hold on. I tried to pull him back from the depths of where the beast wished to bury him. The invisible monster pulled him from one side of the twin-sized bed, and I held on from the opposite side. It was an intense game of tug of war. My son’s life was the rope.
“Let go of my son,” I demanded and fought what I could not see. Heat scathed my skin from what undoubtedly was the beast’s mouth as it spewed venom.
“This one’s mine. I’m not letting him go. God wants to take everything I deserve.”
I couldn’t see my opponent, but I realized who and what he was. He never identifies himself, but he’s always there and always will be. Waiting in the wings when no one’s watching or when everyone is watching.
I struggled to maintain a firm hold on my son, determined never to give up.
It was a fight for life, a fight to the death. As long as I could feel the rough pounding in my chest, I was alive, and that was all I needed to keep fighting. The beast would not let go. I could not let go. My muscles twitched and ached from holding on. My eyes burned from the stench of the beast’s entitled breath. I gasped, lungs devoid of oxygen, heart still determined to beat.
When an enemy you cannot see appears to have the upper hand, they can be rendered powerless when fought with a weapon that takes many forms. A weapon that becomes one thing to someone and something entirely different to another. This weapon is free, inanimate, and replenishable. Unaffected by the monopolistic ownership of other weapons and therefore available to anyone for the taking.
I rebuke you Satan in the name of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, a gentle spirit proclaimed in a tone that reminded me of my long gone grandmother. I mouthed the words as the demon snarled and growled. My hands stung from his fangs gnawing into my skin but I held on, and the gentle spirit blew a cold breeze to ease my pain.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me.” It was the only line I could remember from the verse I’d been taught to say when all hope was lost.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” I held on tight and pulled with renewed strength. I was prepared to repeat the mantra as many times as needed to win. But then, the beast released its grip, my son, and I slammed to the floor, and the gentle spirit’s cool touch erased the burning in my hands.
The smoke dissipated and the beast was gone. Hidden but still there, waiting to pounce again at a more opportune time. I carried my son to my room and laid him beside me on the bed. I watched him as he slept. I vowed to protect him for the remainder of the night and his life.
The phone rang, and I picked it up.
“Hello.” I heard a snake hiss before the line went dead. It rang four more times and each time I answered. I will never ignore the ringing although I know the beast never speaks honorably. His only intent is to ensure I never rest.
The phone rang one last time, and I opened my eyes. I awoke panting, alone in my room, and the clock read 4:04, the reaffirming angel number.
The glow from the dawn moon spilled through the small opening between the curtains. I ran to my son’s room. The floor was steady. I pulled back the blanket to examine his black body. It was as perfect as it had been when I tucked him in the night before. I leaned over, felt his breath, then kissed him without waking him up. I would let him sleep for two more hours then wake him and help him into the new suit and tie I had bought. He would exchange them for a white robe later in the day.
He was unchristened, but after that morning’s Easter service, I would escort him to the front of the church and instruct him on how to tell the pastor he wanted to be saved by Christian experience. The pastor would wade with him into the baptismal pool beneath the glistening stained glass window, lower him into the tepid water, then declare my son a child of God forever.
The thought comforted my never-ending angst as much as feasibly possible. I understood the beast would never give up his quest for my son and that his evil pursuit would come in many forms. Nevertheless, I would fight for my son by any means necessary and teach him to recognize the weapons that have been crafted to destroy his mind, body, and spirit. I would employ countermeasures rooted in faith, the most reliable weapon mothers have at their disposal. A weapon that can be dampened for seasons but rarely extinguished forever.
For the remainder of my life, I was prepared to do battle with a force that would never abandon its need to conquer. That is what mothers must do in a world occupied by beasts that exist among us.
Summer vacation had flown by fast. It was August and an upcoming visit from Gus meant Mama would be in a foul mood until he arrived to pick me up and fuming mad for several days after he’d brought me home and left.
“He should be ashamed to show his face around here,” Mama said. She’d long forgotten she had once loved him. He’d been mean-spirited when it came to Mama and she took exception to him coming and going from our lives. I understood this as normal. It was all I’d ever known or at least all I could remember of my mother and father’s relationship. Nevertheless, I was happy to see him when I could. I’m not sure why. He rarely showed any of us affection and insisted we call him Gus, rather than Daddy or Papa. I assumed he loved us and just didn’t know how to show it. Ruth Ann assured me that wasn’t the case.
“Gus’ll never change. If he stopped coming around, we’d all be better off,” Ruth Ann proclaimed. Hearing that, made me so mad once, I chucked a book at her. She threw a boot that landed square on my forehead, and we broke into an all-out brawl. Mama stormed into the room and pulled Ruth Ann off me and whipped me. Without asking, she knew I had started the fight.
When she left the room, I closed the bedroom door to escape what I knew she would say next, “Jo, your daddy’s not worth fighting your sister over.”
I woke up the next morning still angry but looking forward to what the day had waiting. It was my fifteenth birthday. Gus had promised he’d pick me up and take me school shopping. That meant a lot since he hadn’t bought me anything in a long time. I looked forward to proving Mama wrong. I also looked forward to spending time with him.
He wasn’t allowed inside the house, so I waited for him on the front porch, under the blaze of the Texas sun, for what felt an eternity of hell. It was better than waiting inside the house where I’d have no choice but to listen to Mama’s incessant grumbling.
“I can’t believe you’re so happy to see a man that doesn’t give a hoot about any of us.” She moved about inside the house, intentionally speaking loud enough for me to hear from the porch. At least I had a wall between us to protect me a little.
“One time he hit a man with his truck because he’s just evil,” she said, and I mouthed her words. I’d heard them so many times.
I was relieved when Gus arrived. Mama had said he probably wouldn’t show up. I was in no mood to hear, I told you so, which would’ve been guaranteed. I felt myself smile when his truck turned the corner and headed toward me. My joy quickly dissipated when I saw that he’d brought my half sisters, Earline and Precious.
They were her eleven and thirteen. I was six when Gus left us. I’d done the math and knew Mama had, at least, been right about him cheating on her.
“Hi Gus,” I said and forced myself to smile as I climbed in the dusty pickup.
“Aren’t you going to speak to your sisters?” He demanded in the form of a question.
“Hey,” I said without looking at them. Gus put the truck in gear and we drove away.
I’d spent the majority of the week before my birthday sifting through the JC Penney catalog and had something specific in mind. When we got to the store, I went straight to the shoe department and found the black and white saddle shoes that I’d put a checkmark beside in the catalog. I browsed all of the shelves just to be sure of my choice. Saddle shoes were what all the girls would be wearing on the first day of school and for once, I wanted to have something that everyone else had. As I walked the aisles, I heard Earline’s voice.
“Do you have these in size six?”
“And, I need a size eight,” Precious said.
I turned around, just in time to see Earline hold up the saddle shoe for the saleslady to see.
“Those are the same ones I wanted,” I told Gus and he checked the price tag.
“You’re going to have to pick something else. I can’t afford three pairs, and they asked me first,” Gus said.
The disappointment hit me like the cruel hunger pains that gnawed my stomach so many days of my life. I cursed Gus inwardly as I wandered up and down the aisles looking for shoes that would have to be better than having nothing at all. I couldn’t make up my mind and Gus became impatient. He snatched a pair of brown fabric moccasins off the shelf and handed them to the sales clerk.
“Tell the lady the size you need,” Gus said. I looked at the shoes in horror.
I was relieved when Gus said he needed to take me home. My day was ruined, and there was nothing that could’ve made it better. I stared silently through the passenger window as Earline and Precious sat wedged between me and Gus on the front seat of his truck.
When Gus drove up to the front of the house, I jumped out of the truck, I think before it came to a complete stop. I headed to the house, without looking back. I’d already decided it was the last time I’d get in it.
I cried as I ran up the porch steps. I nearly fell trying to get inside the house; blinded by tears.
Mama heard the commotion and rushed into the room to see what was wrong. I held the flimsy slipper-like shoes in the air for her to see.
“He bought them saddle shoes and got me these,” I sobbed.
“And you were in such a big hurry to jump in that truck. I tried to warn you not to get your hopes up.”
Mama grabbed the shoes from me with one swoop. She stomped into the kitchen, grabbed a butcher knife from the cabinet drawer, speared one of the moccasins, and sliced through the brown fabric as if gutting a fish. She threw both halves, and its match, into the garbage pail.
“You’ll go barefoot before I let you wear that demon’s trash,” she said.
The soles of the only shoes I owned were riddled with holes and I knew Mama didn’t have the money to buy me new ones.
“What did we do to deserve such a pitiful life?” I cried and asked Ruth Ann as she lay beside me in bed that night.
“You better shut up before Mama hears you,” she said and toward her back toward me.
“All the praying in the world and Mama can barely do anything for us. Gus won’t do anything. What’s God doing?”
“Maybe you’ll stop waiting for him now. It doesn’t make things any better,” she whispered before pulling the blanket over her head.
Three weeks after my birthday, the first day of school arrived. Mama had managed to buy polish, but it didn’t make my old shoes look new.
I rearranged the pieces of cardboard covering the soles and tried on the dress Mama had made me. I inspected myself in the mirror and thought about the days to come when I’d have no lunch or lunch money. School days felt incredibly long when you began them hungry and remained that way until the last bell rang. I had Margie, but as much as I knew she didn’t mind, I’d come to hate the thought of asking. I dread a long year of stomach growls underneath shoddy clothes and raggedy shoes.
On my way to school that morning, instead of heading toward Our Mother of Mercy, I detoured past Ferguson’s Barbecue. I peered through the pane glass window as Mr. Ferguson prepared for that day’s patrons. The sweet, smoky fragrance of charred meat permeated the air, and my stomach growled.
Mr. Ferguson placed plastic menus between napkin holders and arranged a variety of bottled barbecue sauces. My mouth watered. I wanted to go inside and place an order.
When I turned to leave, I noticed a help wanted poster in the window. I knocked and Mr. Ferguson opened the door.
“I’m here about the job,” I told him. I’d never decided anything so quickly before in my life.
“You ever wait tables before?” he asked.
“Sure,” I lied as Mama and the ninth grade crossed my mind.
“How old are you?”
“Eighteen.” I was shocked, but relieved, that he believed me. He widened the door and invited me into the family style restaurant. He agreed to test me out on the lunch shift.
That afternoon, when I should’ve been returning home from school, I walked into the house holding a green dress, the same color as the sign for Ferguson’s Diner.
“I’ve made up my mind, Mama. I’m tired of being hungry all the time. I’m going to work,” I said. I held out the ten dollars in tips I’d earned that day for her to see.
Mama stood motionless. Her silence made me nervous. I wished she’d say something. I’d already prepared mentally.
“You’re going to regret this one day,” she said.
I knew there was no future in waiting tables, but it was quick money; a temporary solution to my biggest problem at the time.
I promised Mama I’d go back to school one day and had every intention of doing so.
My favorite part of Christmas is decorating the house; picking just the right location for poinsettias, removing tissue from delicate ornaments; the Christmas Duck dressed in a white fur coat, and of course my collection of Santas.
Notice I did not say, “Black Santas.” I am a proud Black woman. Of course, my Santa is Black. However, the last time I sat on Santa’s lap, it was 1967, I was three years old, and Santa was white. The photograph taken that afternoon is among the cherished items I display every year around this time. It conjures up memories I have collected over the years. Memories overshadow the color of Santa’s skin. He is, after all, a fictional character.
When my dear mother insisted the time had come that my children learned there was no such thing as Santa Claus, she asked: “why are you allowing a fat, White man to take credit for all of your hard work?” Her question may have lacked politically correct eloquence, but it triggered a philosophical question that I still carry within. What positive Black images do I have an obligation to represent in my life and the life of my children?
Mom passed away on December 8, 2000, and I miss her most at Christmas. She was a strong, beautiful woman that gave me the best gifts I ever received; Black pride. The kind of pride that makes me smile when I display my collection of Santas with the same skin color as mine. They represent as they hold it down alongside the black and white Woolworth’s Department Store photograph of Santa and I. The same store where sit-ins that led to their integrated lunch counter had taken place a few years before the picture was taken.
There was outrage once by a segment of White America when Minnesota’s Mall of America’s hired it’s first black Santa. That reminded me that some still choose to see the world through the limited prism of their childhood. Their outrage had more to do with their memories of what Santa should look like not what their children’s future memories of Santa (and hopefully this world) will be. Nevertheless, I was overjoyed by the mall’s 21st-century decision. It strengthened my hope for our country and made me love Christmas more than ever that year.
I have put out my Black Santas, decorated my tree, and pulled out the old black and white photo of me and White Santa. This year I don’t feel much like celebrating Christmas. I feel like I shouldn’t. I’m sure it has something to do with what is happening in Washington, DC these days. Oh well, Black Santa is still smiling, so I guess there’s still hope for the world.
I met a man on my way to jury duty. It was a chance meeting, and I never asked his name. I’ll call him John.
I exited the underground metro station at Judiciary Square confused. Nothing I saw looked familiar except the grayness of a cold Washington, DC day. I stood in place, turned a complete circle, and contemplated the direction, I should take.
“Are you lost?” A crackling voice asked from thin air.
“Sort of,” I answered and spun around. The man smiled at with me with a crooked smile and collapsed top lip, a telltale sign of missing front teeth.
“Where you headed?” He asked while fumbling inside his backpack. I tried to think of something to say to avoid answering his question. I preferred to find my own way. His appearance suggested there was something about him I should mistrust. I scanned the area for an escape, but there were no visible street signs and no one in the vicinity to save me had I needed it. There was only John.
“The courthouse,” I answered.
“That’s where I’m going. Follow me.” He slung the dingy backpack over his shoulder and waited for me to catch up. I felt a tinge of vulnerability but had no immediate solution to avoid being rude to this stranger. It felt wrong to say ‘no thank you’ and be on my way.
I accompanied John along the unusually deserted city street. Being trained in defensive tactics, I bladed my body strategically. If necessary, I was in the position to cold-cock him with my oversized hobo bag, weighed down with bottled water, snacks, and a hardback book. I kept one eye on John, alert for any fast movements. We were several steps into the journey before I noticed he was holding, what appeared to be, a joint. This could end badly.
“What are you going to the courthouse for?” He asked as he reinforced the ends of the twisted white paper.
“On my way to jury duty.”
It was out of character for me to walk shoulder-to-shoulder with a dusty, sandy-haired guide. It was even more unusual for me to participate in the conversation he forced upon me. I was annoyed by his familiarity, but, by then, I was relatively sure he was harmless.
His kindness was peculiar, and he was oblivious to what should have been obvious; I was less than thrilled to be in his company. Perhaps he understood and wanted to walk with me anyway. The evening news and my last stint at jury duty, two years before, reinforced my predisposition to avoid strangers on the street, at all costs; particularly ones that looked like John.
“I’m going to the courthouse to take a piss test.”
I turned my nose up at his candor. When he lit one end of the blunt, I was relieved by the sweet smell of tobacco smoke. I had no idea people still rolled their cigarettes; not the legal ones anyway. I had quit smoking more than twenty years before and detested the smell of burning nicotine. I had always bought my cigarettes, by the carton.
John held the hand-rolled smoke between his thumb and index finger and struggled to wrap his loose lips around it. Between drags and puffs, he shared details of his life and why he was headed my way; an unfortunate run-in with the “po-lice.”
His honesty was fascinating; given the world where most people go to great lengths to put their best foot forward on Facebook, regardless of the reality of their circumstances. John was an open book and had no regard for his unfortunate privacy. He divulged more details than I cared to hear; getting arrested more than once was of no consequence to him. His words flowed with the lightheartedness of a circus ringmaster, but the edges of his drooped eyelids told a different story. There was pain in his eyes, yet he willed his voice to tell his secrets in a disguised “water-under-the-bridge” attitude. His sentences ran together as he rambled, topic to topic, as though he had saved his confessions for an entire year and wished to tell me each one of them in as little time, as possible.
The judge had allowed him to enter an intervention program that kept him out of jail, as long as he remained trouble free and submitted to regular piss tests. It was better than nothing, even if it meant a long train ride from Baltimore, once a week, for six months.
“The cop tried to cut me a break.” He said, indicating no sign of animosity toward the police officer that had escorted him from Union Station and told him not to return.
“But then, he arrested me.” He chuckled as he took a deep drag from the blunt he had smoked down to his fingertips. It was a laugh that hinted he knew he had done something stupid; he could not help but laugh.
“I thought you said he cut you a break?” I asked.
“He did, when he kicked me out of the station, the first two times. When I tried to sneak on a train, he said I was going to jail.” He blew the smoke into the air, tossed the butt on the ground, and straightened his dirty book bag.
“I guess I didn’t realize how drunk I was. I just wanted to get back to Baltimore. I like Baltimore better than DC. The police are more kind in Baltimore, and I know the area better. It’s an easier life there. When you know people and know how to get around, it’s easier to stay out of trouble.” It was the best thing I’d ever heard anyway say about living in Baltimore.
John and I walked a few steps in uncomfortable silence. For once, he seemed to be at a loss for words.
I glanced at him from the corner of my eye and noticed the etched lines on his leathery face and the yellowed fingernails of his dry and cracked hands. His pants and boots; larger than what one would expect for a man his height. The unnatural slump in his shoulders that faltered under the overstuffed backpack.
“Yeah, I’m a drunk, but I don’t do no drugs.” His words broke the silence as he sensed what I had just realized. John was homeless. Not just down on his luck homeless, but a sad drunk that drank until he passed out then slept wherever he was when he took his last swig for the night.
“That’s good.” I answered as I heard my grandmother’s voice, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” The chill I felt was not weather related.
“I did some heroin and crack once.” John was unrelenting. Could my chance meeting with John be a test of my patience or a joke I would be let in on, at any moment? I checked my watch, careful not to flash my wedding rings. I had less than twenty minutes to get to Courtroom B and still be on time.
“I did a line of heroin and smoked some crack, but I didn’t feel nothing. I had liquor in me, so I don’t know if that was the reason why or not. Maybe, the people I got it from gave me something that wasn’t real dope.”
John said drugs were a waste of money. He preferred the less expensive knock-out numbing he experienced with alcohol. John was the first person I’d spoken to that admitted doing heroin and crack. I wanted to seize the opportunity and inquire more about his experience, but I felt it would have been an intrusion, so I remained quiet and let him do the talking.
I wondered whether I had ever slipped by John and ignored him on a cold night as he lay, passed out, atop a street grate as billows of steam rose from the ground engulfing his motionless body. Perhaps, he was that person I saw sprawled on the park bench, covered by a shredded sleeping bag, as brownish yellow liquid gushed from the midpoint of his body to the grass below.
“Are you sure we’re going the right way?” I asked.
“I’m sure,” he said though I doubted his confidence. I was relieved when I saw a clean-shaven man, briefcase in hand, headed in our direction.
“Excuse, me sir, where’s the Superior Court Building?” John had asked.
Without stopping or looking at us, the well-dressed stranger pointed toward the sky, “Three blocks that way. It’s that tall building.”
“Thank you,” John called after him then looked at me with a sheepish grin. “I guess I got turned around.” We did an about face and headed in the direction from which we came.
“I need to stop drinking. Lord knows it’s gotten me in a world of trouble.”
“Why don’t you then?” I blurted, frustrated with him for taking me in the wrong direction.
“I guess some people are just weaker than others.” His voice floated away to a different place and time. He started drinking when he was ten years old and had continued throughout his life, except the time he was sober for eight years. I estimated his age at sixty-five and wondered what it felt like to live the majority of life in a fog and why there had been nothing worth stopping for. His parents were long gone and neither of his ex-wives or their children wanted anything to do with him.
“I’m going to get myself together. It’s going to take hard work and energy. I’m not sure I have either left in me. ”
Once back on track, pedestrians appeared from out of nowhere; each one staring at me and John. How unusual we must have looked together; him with his second-hand clothes and me, with my black and blonde curly afro.
“Maybe it’s a blessing drugs didn’t do anything for you,” I told him, not knowing why or where my words had come.
“Yeah, I’m going to get myself together, ” he nodded; to convince himself.
When we arrived at the courthouse, there were two winding lines of people waiting to enter through building security. Light rain had begun to fall, and I hoped it would not take long to make it inside.
“Well, you have a good day,” he said.
“You too and thanks for getting me here,” I told him as he walked away then stopped at the back of the longer of the two lines, twenty feet away from me; standing in the shorter line. It was an odd thing to do, after having walked the whole way with me.
Periodically, I looked over my shoulder at him, but he never looked in my direction. He stared at the back of the person’s head in front of him in line.
I sat in the crowded juror’s lounge among an assortment of old, young, men, and women that I avoided making eye contact with for the remainder of the day. I never spoke to anyone in the room and they did not talk to me. We engulfed ourselves in our private worlds of smartphones, and Kindles. I completed The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao finally then switched to Words with Friends and challenged a random player; who beat me six times.
After seven hours of waiting, the Clerk of Court entered the room and announced “Ladies and Gentlemen, no other jury panels will be needed today. You are free to go and thank you for fulfilling your civic duty.”
When I exited the Courthouse, I followed the signs to the underground metro station. It was less than a stone’s throw away. I looked around but there was no sign of John.