The best thing about being friends with my boy Pitbull is he’s so stuck on himself I don’t have to spend too much time explaining my living situation or coming up with excuses for not going places with him. The worst thing about being best friends with my boy Pitbull is I don’t have to spend too much time…you get where I’m going with this.
Take right now for instance. We’ve been sitting in his car for the last twenty minutes, I have not said but two words to him, and he hasn’t even noticed. Just like it hasn’t registered I’ve raised the volume on the stereo so loud, the door panels are vibrating.
Truth is, today is my sixteenth birthday. And like I’ve been doing since my seventh birthday, I will celebrate with ice-cream, cake, Aunt Mo, and a phone call.
That’s the only reason Pitbull was able to talk me into riding over West Side with him. Why I now find myself on an empty, near-dark parking lot outside a fast food joint waiting for one of Pitbull’s females to bring pizza and chicken wings for us. ***** probably gonna be dry and crusty as hell too.
I shake my head at my own stupidity. West Barronville lives up to every hood stereotype. D-boys, trap-houses, gangbangers who stay on the corner talking about ‘these my streets,’ and white cops who enjoy slamming folks who look like me on the pavement, sticking guns in our faces, and asking questions later.
West Side represents every ghetto cliché I know, and then some. That’s the reason I hate this place. Not that I like East Side any better. Upper East Barronville is rich folks with their fancy cars, fancier houses and two-parent families with 2.5 kids.
The American dream.
Yeah, I’ll admit, rich folks’ money is the reason EBH – East Barronville High – has one of the best football programs in the state, and why anyone graduating from EBH is guaranteed a shot at college. A while back, there was some talk that the school district was considering an initiative to bus kids in from log Town and Barronville, but them white folks shut that down with a quickness.
They didn’t want their babies screened like criminals by security guards when they tried to enter the school, like the kids over at Edmonton. EBH did let a couple of the right kind of financially-challenged kids in. I made the cut because my football game is on point and they think I live with Larry.
Me, I’ll take Log Town all day, every day over East or West Side any day. Even if the kids in Log Town don’t walk around hunting Pokémon because they too busy trying to get home from school to help their migrant-worker parents pick so their family can make quota or earn some extra cash before they moved on to the next state. The next harvest.
Yeah, Log Town is struggling to find its identity, and the people living there are wrestling with themselves, but I can relate to that.
I shift in my seat, glancing over at Pitbull. He’s busy texting. No doubt it’s one of the many females he’s messing with. Pitbull’s cool and everything, but Bruh messy as hell. Always trying to start mess with someone.
When he’s not stunting like he’s from the streets, he stay busy chasing after hood-girls in short-shorts or tight jeans, but the only type girls he takes home to meet his parents are bougie black girls who go to St. Paul’s, a very white private school in Randolph.
Pitbull has nothing to worry about though, his Pops has the kind of connects that money, a good golf swing, and membership to an exclusive country club can get you. And he already know he’ll be suiting up in crimson and rolling with the Tide. Pitbull’s family is all about Capstone pride, his mom was a cheerleader who snagged Pitbull’s QB Daddy when he played for Alabama. So, it makes no difference if Pitbull graduates dead last in the class of graduating seniors or nah, he will be suiting up.
I’m checking my phone for messages when a set of headlights appear out of nowhere. It’s a car full of Edmonton High –East Barronville’s other high school– footballers, they pull into a parking spot two spots over. Wrapping his arm around the steering wheel, Pitbull leans forward, sticking his head out the window, talking some mess about hooking up with their girls last night. The driver of the Edmonton car also leans out the windows.
“Bet you ain’t gonna be saying that **** if you wasn’t in your car, bruh.” The Edmonton player taunts.
“Leave them fools alone,” I mumble, pulling my hoodie up over my head, and reclining my seat all the way back. When Pitbull ignores me, I raise the volume on the radio some more, then nodding to the beat, rapping along under my breath, I leave them to it.
The Edmonton player says something I don’t hear, and Pitbull gets out the car, leaving me no choice but to get out too.
Gahtdamn! This the reason I don’t go nowhere with his simple ass. Why da hell I let Pitbull talk me into riding over West Side?
None of this makes any sense. I got enough money in my pocket to buy slices for us and for these clowns Pitbull trying to wild out with. And Pitbull dumb ass got enough in the trust fund his daddy set up for him to buy this place. Yet, here we are, on a semi-dark, empty parking lot, wilding out like we got nothing better to do. Pitbull and a guy who turns out to be the quarterback for Edmonton – I recognize his Cooper-the-Troll-looking ass – glare at each other like they about to escalate things when I see a second set of headlights pulling up.
Awww ****, I groan when the lights swing in our direction. The second car, all bass, and hydraulics roll up blasting rap music so loud even Pitbull’s car vibrates when the driver parks behind Pitbull’s car, blocking us in. I swear under my breath, in this area, it won’t take but five minutes for the cops to show up if someone calls them. Then next thing you know, you gonna find yourself slammed up against the hood of a cop car, or on the ground, knee pressed into your junk, staring down the barrel of a gun.
“Gahtdamn, bruh,” I swear under my breath when a tall, muscular guy, an unlit cigarette hanging loosely between his lips, baggy jeans hanging off his butt, gray wife-beater stretched across his chest, gets out on the passenger side. Four other guys get out, two of them hang back, leaning against the low-riding car they pulled up in. The other two walk over to where we’re standing. The first dude who got out the car, walks over and wraps a long, tattooed arm around Pitbull’s neck. In the near-dark, I can see it’s a half sleeve but can’t make out the details. I brace myself, we’re about to get our asses handed to us because no way me and Pitbull can take all of them.
Pitbull pulls away from Tattoo. “S’up?”
“You know how it is, l’il homie,” Tattoo replies, spitting on the ground.
When Pitbull nods, my body relaxes. He knows these guys.
“Aye, you seen Richard?” Tattoo asks, head tipped back, eyes half-closed as he draws deeply on his cigarette.
“Seen him yesterday,” says Pitbull.
“Next time you see that fool, tell him I’m lookin’ for his ass. Hear he been talkin’ ish my baby sis. That **** ain’t cool though,” Tattoo says.
“Word,” Pitbull mumbles, rubbing his chest where Tattoo’s stiff fingers had jabbed seconds ago.
Tattoo leans against the car, eyes squinted against his cigarette smoke, studying the Edmonton players. I watched uneasily as he brings his mouth close to Pitbull’s ear, whispering something. Pitbull nods. Tattoo pulls back, tosses his cigarette to the ground, then walks over to the quarterback who is now standing uncertainly outside his car.
“Whatchu got, homie?” Tattoo asks, hemming him up against the side of the car.
“Aye, yo, I don’t want no problems,” Cooper-the-Troll replies, voice trembling.
Tattoo laughs, looking around. One of the guys who followed him, is standing head tilted to the side, sneer on his face. The other one – dark-as-night, muscle-bound, leprechaun-looking guy – pops his knuckles, then let his arms hanging loose, fingers linked, legs slightly spread waiting for a signal, to start swinging of the Edmonton guys. One of the Edmonton players scrambles into the car. Leprechaun scoffs, propping one foot against the back tire of Pitbull’s car.
Tattoo spits on the ground, wipe the back of his hand across his mouth, then grins at the Leprechaun. “Looks like l’il homie is rethinking ****. Minute ago, looked like he was bucking up on my boy here.”
Leprechaun grabs his crotch, rearranges his junk, then folds his arms across his chest, grunting. Tattoo, head cocked to the side, rubs his fingers across his beard, studying Cooper-the-Troll. Tattoo shakes his head, taking his original position next to Pitbull. Placing his arms around Pitbull’s shoulder, he continues their conversation like he didn’t just have Cooper-the-Troll hemmed up. “These fools tryna to beef with you?” He asks tipping his head toward the Edmonton players.
Pitbull snort-laughs. “Nah, bruh, they’re keeping me entertained until my girl shift over.”
Hold up. I thought we were waiting for old girl to bring out some food? Now Pitbull talking about hanging around because she, his flavor of the month? Ain’t nobody got time for this.
Tattoo focuses on Cooper-the-Troll who is now shifting uneasily from foot to foot. “This my man right here,” he says, resting a hand on Pitbull’s shoulder. “You start **** with him, you start **** with me. Nah’mean?”
That’s all it took for the Edmonton players to load up in their car and ride out.
I text my man, Jackson.
Me: call me in ten mins.
Me: do it, bruh.
Pitbull ain’t ****. It’s always something with him. ‘Ain’t gonna be but thirty minutes,’ he promised when I got in the car with him. “We gonna swoop in, ****** up them wings and slices, and ride over to my spot.” He’d said. Now he’s talking about being here until God knows when.
Gahtdamn. I swear under my breath.
“Yo, Pit,” I call, just as one of the guys leaning on Tattoo’s car walks over to us. He stands in the shadow beside Tattoo. Jaws clenched, quick eyes that rest on nothing, but sees everything, darts from Tattoo to Pitbull and back. Shifty-eyed, second guy watches everything but says nothing. Everything about this guy says he’s used to being locked up and going back to prison wouldn’t be a problem for him.
I, on the other hand, am not cool with juvie or jail. I watch Shifty-eyes, he’s focused on Tattoo, who, arms waving this way and that, head tilted to the side, is telling a story about beating the **** outta some guy who owes him money. Shifty-eyes has the same half sleeve. I wonder if they got their tattoos in jail. Again, I ask myself what I was thinking, agreeing to ride with Pitbull.
My phone rings in under five minutes. It’s Jackson, boy can’t even tell time. I step away, pretending to have a conversation with Aunt Mo.
“Gotta go, bruh,” I say to Pitbull.
Pitbull’s eyes sweep over me. “What you talkin’ ’bout?”
“Aunt Mo needs me to go somewhere.”
“Why you lyin’, bruh?” Pitbull asks. “You know you ain’t going nowhere for yo’ auntie.”
“I ain’t got time for this, man,” I say.
“Bruuuh,” Pitbull says.
Tattoo looks at me, then at Pitbull. Shifty-eyed Second guy does the same. “Nah, playa,
self-respect starts by respectin’ da womens in yo’ life, you feel me? If Auntie need him, he gotta go. That’s what up.”
Jailhouse philosophy from Tattoo…my man.
“You giving me a ride or nah?” I ask.
Pitbull turns to Tattoo. “You be here when I get back?”
“Nah, l’il homie, got some business in the ’Ville.”
Drug business, I can’t help but think.
“I’mma get with you later then,” Pitbull says, slipping into the driver’s seat.
“Aye, tell my man, I say ’s’up,” Tattoo says, pointing at Pitbull.
“What you talkin’ ’bout, man?” Pitbull asks, frowning at Tattoo.
Tattoo drags deeply on his cigarette before answering. “Richard, like I told you.”
“Aiight, aiight. I hear you, bruh,” Pitbull answers, putting the keys in the ignition.
When I walk in the door, the house is dark except for the light that filters down the hallway from the back of the house, filling the corridor with an eerie backlight. I drop my backpack, easing quietly into the chocolate, butter-soft leather recliner. It’s faded, creased from years of use and angled for optimum viewing of the flat-screen TV mounted on the wall. I look around the dark, silent room and sigh. I know I’m gonna to catch it from Aunt Mo, no two ways about that. Might as well get this over with.
Picking up my backpack, I walk down the corridor. Aunt Mo and Larry are sitting at the kitchen table waiting for me. My stomach bottoms out, just like it does every time I press into the huddle before a game.
The smell of fried chicken with black-eyed peas and beef pelau hang in the air, a cake sits on the breakfast island. For some reason, the sight of Aunt Mo and Larry sitting at the table, the smell of food and the warmth of the kitchen from her using the oven to bake my birthday cake, stir up memories of laughter as we sit around my grandmother’s kitchen table. The aroma of homemade bread, home-cured Christmas ham, and black-cake hanging in the air as we enjoy Christmas breakfast.
It’s a memory I shouldn’t recall so vividly.
I walk over to Aunt Mo, kissing her on the cheek. “Aye, Larry,” I say, turning to him.
“Malcolm,” he answers, voice subdued. I know there is trouble brewing. Trouble I don’t want to deal with it. Not tonight.
“Auntie,” I start off, trying to gauge her level of *************. “I appreciate
everything, but I don’t feel like celebrating. I think I’mma go to bed. I’m tired,” I tell her walking away, hoping she won’t stop me.
Her fingers stop drumming the table top. Raising her head, she focuses her attention on me. “Boi, where you was all this time, eh? Who you think you is? Walkin’ up in this house, this hour talking about you tired? You have a job?” She spits question after question, giving me no chance to answer. Not that she wants an answer.
I stop in my tracks, turning to face her, saying nothing.
“You is a man then,” she says like it’s a fact.
“No ma’am,” I mumbled, trying to meet her eyes, but can’t.
“No? Oh, so you acting this way, because you want Balahoo an’ all he crew considering you a hoodlum? You think I spend all day slaving over a hot store for no reason?” She asked, voice strained.
Larry reaches across the table for her hand, but she slaps his hand away.
I say, the same time Larry says, “Mo –”
She ignores us both.
“My money jumping up high, high like is ah J’ouvert band, but you walking around here talking about you tired?”
Like Mom, her accent thickens when she’s excited or angry, but this time she didn’t go from perfect American accent to Trinidadian accent. It’s Trinidadian from the rip, her accent is so thick, it’s taking a minute for my brain to translate her words.
I want to tell her it’s hard for me. I haven’t seen my mother in years. I have a brother…we’re growing up in two different countries…I should be feeling happy because it’s my birthday.
But I’m not.
“Auntie, I…it’s not that I don’t appreciate all you do…”
Eyebrows knitted together, she crosses her arms over her chest, giving me a tight-lipped nod. “Call your mudda, Malcolm.”
“I can’t Aunt Mo…not tonight…I don’t –”
“Call your mudda,” she repeats.
“I’ll call tomorrow,” I say, staring at the linoleum floor.
She cuts her eyes at Larry. He reaches for her hands. This time she doesn’t push his hand away, so he wraps his fingers around hers.
“Sure, if that’s what you want,” she says.
But I know Aunt Mo. I know she’s not letting me off the hook. Her eyes tell me she doesn’t want to get into it with me in front of Larry but brace myself, because I’m gonna hear about this later. I turn to leave but turn around when I hear the drag of metal legs across the linoleum kitchen floor. It sounded tired.
I study Aunt Mo, her dark skin, nose and natural hair makes her look like Viola Davis. Even her wide-open smile that says everything’s gonna be okay is like Viola’s. But she’s not smiling now. Shoulders slumped, eyes sad, she gives me a nod so slight, I almost miss it. My mind flashes back to that one scene from How to Get Away with Murder. The one where Viola takes her wig and makeup off, looking beat down, but Dora Milaje fierce at the same time.
“I think I will have some of that cake before you put it up,” I tell her.
I take a deep breath, walking over to the table. “I really appreciate everything you do for me, Auntie…since Mom got deported, I dunno, I feel…lost.” My voice is a whisper.
“I know baby,” she says, wrapping her arms tightly around my waist. I wrap my arms around her shoulders and rest my chin on the top of her head, breathing in her scent. She smells like a mix of almond essence, the seasonings she used for cooking the pelau and cleaning products. Familiar scents which make me feels safe.
Breathing in deeply, filling my lungs with air, I let my backpack drop at my feet with a dull thud. I want Aunt Mo to understand I’m confused, scared…angry…that there’s an ache in my chest where my heart should be, and every year it gets worse. I just want…need Aunt Mo to understand that every year without Mom, despair wraps itself little tighter around my chest. That every now and again, the seven-year-old who wet his bed until he was ten, and cried for his mother every night for months, hoping his mother would shows up.
Especially on my birthday.