Hood Fairy Tales
by Jamal Sharif
The sound was unmistakable. My 2Pac CD was bumpin' full blast, but not loud enough to override the series of dull thuds emanating from the rear passenger side of my midnight black '99 Jetta.
Dammit, I'm gonna be late, I hissed; as I maneuvered my way across three lanes and out of mounting rush hour traffic. I had to flick off a jerk in a Yugo; fatso acted like he didn't wanna let me over. I got out, inspected the shredded tire, and cursed again. After ten seconds of unproductive seething, I snatched my purse, slammed the car door, and started steppin'. My mood mirrored the condition of my car:
Deflated. And to the curb.
I had less than an hour to get a spare on my ride, inch my way down the 110 freeway into Long Beach, secure a parking spot on campus, and hike my butt to class. I was hoping to dash into the gas station up ahead, place a call to Triple A, and be outta here in thirty. Dusk was bearing down on the South Los Angeles landscape, and I damn sure didn't want to be caught in these parts after sundown. My wheels conked out a couple of miles before I got to the freeway, which happened to be smack dab in the middle of my old neighborhood. I didn't take comfort, despite the vaguely familiar surroundings.
By the time I got to the Arco, my attitude was major. Pools of sweat had begun to form in unattractive places on my silk blouse. I'd twisted my ankle twice, trying to step lively in 3-1/2 inch heels. I still had on my clown suit, the typical nine-to-five gear; stockings, pumps, and skirt, etc., and it was definitely slowing me down. I'd always despised wearing dresses, especially as a kid. I felt they hindered my freedom of movement. I couldn't climb trees, jump double dutch, or fight too good, if I was worrying about whether somebody was gonna see my panties all the time. And as a girl, double dutchin' and fighting were all I ever wanted to do.
I spotted the pay phone; totally chastising myself for not paying my cell phone bill on time. While making my way to the phone, I notice some brotha trying to get my attention. He may have been standing beside a tan Explorer pumping gas, but I didn't look in his direction long enough to be sure.
"Hey there, beautiful."
Weary from a day that refused to be over, I decide to play the deaf 'n dumb girl role and ignore him. Last thing I need right now is some mack daddy wanna-be, trying to electrify me with his wack lines. As I pick up the phone and dial, I hear footsteps briskly approaching from behind. My heart began to pound. So loudly, that I could barely hear the numbers sound off as I pushed the keypad. What does this guy want? Maybe more than my attention.
My mind reeled back to the time I had my backpack snatched, when some fool didn't appreciate it when I didn't have any change to spare. Abusive panhandlers are just one of the things you have to put up with on this side of town. I let that sucker run off with my goods, that day. Today, I was ready to fight.
Now the guy was directly behind me. He sounded like he wasn't going to take no answer, for an answer.
"Fuck off," I spat over my shoulder, at the exact moment the Triple A operator came on the line. My hands were shaking, I felt sick; panicky. I was about to ask her to call the police.
"Roadside Assistance. May I help you?" the voice queried.
"Umm, yeah. I mean, yes. I'm stranded with a flat, but, um..."
"Scoop!" the stranger said, impatiently. "Is that you?"
I jumped; startled. The phone slipped out of my hand; the operator's voice grew faint. Echoes began stirring from a faraway place; causing me to lose grip on my sassy-girl cool.
...C'mon now, Scoop, you always takin' too long to decide...is it gonna be bubblegum, or vanilla, or chocolate this time...we all want our turn, too…hurry up, Scoop!...
"Ma'am? Ma'am, are you there? Do you need assistance?" the operator yelled into the phone, which was now dangling from its silver cord.
I got it together. Turned around. And faced my past.
"Scoop. I knew it was you," he said, "I could tell by the way you marched up in here, attitude all in front of ya. Some things never change, do they?" He gave me a knowing smile, as he caught the receiver and tried to hand it to me. "Do you need to finish this call?"
I shook my head. I was coming down off the adrenaline high, ever since I realized I wasn't in the process of being assaulted or robbed. He gently hung up the phone.
"Fancy meeting you here," he grinned.
I transferred my purse from one shoulder to the other. "Believe me," I snapped, "I'm just passing through."
"Look at you, with your little huffy self. I been tryin' to catch up with you, Scoop. They got you that busy out there in Beverly Hills, you can't return phone calls?"
"Dammit, Ellis, I wish you'd stop calling me that." The name belonged to someone else. Someone who no longer existed.
Everyone knows that kids in the ghetto get branded with a nickname; Spanky, Choo- Choo, Lil' Nook - something real stupid or personality specific. From the moment I came out the womb, I had a passion for ice cream. Legend has it, an uncle of mine snuck me a taste when I about was five months old, and from that point on, momma said I couldn't get enough of the stuff. If anyone asked me what I wanted to eat - it could've been morning, noon, or night - I'd want ice cream. "How much?" they'd ask. I'd say, 'A scoop!' Hence, the name.
Only those who know the ghost of an ashy-kneed, pig-tailed little girl, still call me Scoop. Those who know her past.
One scoop for you, I can hear momma's voice. And one scoop for you. She would smile proudly, at me and my twin brother, Malik, as she watched us eat. I chuckled at the thought. And as usual, my enjoyment faded just as quickly.
"No, Ellis, I'm not too busy to return my phone calls. I just figured you were calling to say hi, that's all," I lied. "To check in. Let me know you're still alive." I regretted the words, as soon as I said them.
We looked at each other in awkward silence.
"Yo cuzz," a bandana wearing, saggy panted brotha declared, approaching us. "Ya'll 'bout finished?" He paused to take an insanely long drag off a ridiculously large joint. "A nigga need to use the phone."
Ellis and I were still standing at the booth.
"Yeah, yeah homie. Come on through," Ellis replied, his inner-city vernacular contradicting his straight laced attire. I hadn't seen him in over a year. Didn't realize how much I missed his deep, smooth voice. He looked good. Something pulled inside me. I pulled back.
Ellis grabbed my hand, and we began to walk away. I glanced at him sideways. I knew he was about to get heavy on me, so I did my best to distract him.
"Look, L. I got a flat tire, and I'm hella late for class. Got your cell on you? I needs to call Triple A back, so I can get it fixed. That's who I was callin', before you pulled that ambush move on me. 'Aint yo' momma told you 'bout sneakin' up on folks like that?"
I too slid right back into my native tongue; which is something I try not to do. It took me long enough to rework this accent into a more refined, conventional way of speaking. Still, my rooted dialect always seemed to resurface naturally, when I was comfortable. Or highly upset.
"No need for all that. I'll fix the tire, Scoo-, I mean, A-sha," he said sarcastically. "Besides, it'll give us a chance to talk. Where are you?"
I pointed in the general direction and started walking. Attitude all in front of me.
"Let me grab my truck," Ellis said, jogging toward the station. "I'll be right there."
I snuck another glance at him. He's right; some thing's don't change. Despite everything, he was still the same version of the Ellis that I remembered; just taller and finer. Seems like I can't remember a time when he wasn't around - back on the block when he was always tryin' to outskate or outrun me. Or messing with me and my friends, pulling our hair or trying to scare us with the Boogey Man routine. As we got older, he became more like a second brother - always trying to keep me out of trouble, even fighting my battles when he had to. Ellis was my school-yard savior, my advisor, my confidant. More than just my brother's best friend.
You gotta stop fighting all the time, Scoop. Why you let them get you so upset? The boys pick on you because they like you, and the girls just bother you 'cause you cute. Or they like Malik, and they mad 'cause you tell them they're too ugly to be in the family. Now I got your candy bag back from Fat Tommy, he 'aint gon' snatch it from you no more, okay? Stop cryin'. We all gon' walk to the store before the streetlights come on. You can get you some ice cream then.
A blaring car horn pushed me out of my reverie. When I looked up, I saw that Ellis had already begun the fix-a-flat routine.
"What time do you have to be in class?" he asked, as loosened the lugs securing my custom rims.
"Seven. Not a half second after." I looked at my watch. It was almost six-thirty. Perhaps I could still go in late, and bring in a piece of the busted tire as proof. Maybe, I should call the professor right now, and let him know I'm having legitimate car trouble. Hell, I'll be damned if I'm going to lose my seat in this writing workshop, not after all the crap I'm going through at the job due to my school schedule. I know I wasn't offered that promotion because I informed management I'd be unable to keep working those long hours. That's why I've remained assistant copy editor over the last eighteen months, while lesser experiences colleagues - in fact, people that I trained - were offered senior editor positions. Even though I was led to believe at least one of the positions would be mine. A tiny flame of anger rose in my stomach.
"So," Ellis asked, "were you just going to ignore all of my messages?" He was in the process of putting on the spare.
"Want some music?" I opened the passenger door, and started flipping through the pile of CD's in my glove compartment. "Let's see what I have…"
"Still listening to 'Pac?" Ellis inquired.
"Tortured souls," he answered smugly. "tend to stick together."
I sucked my teeth, gazing off into the distance.
"Talk to me, Scoop." Ellis stopped to look me. "What's been going on with you?"
"Nothing," I answered, too quickly. I started to remind him about the name thing again, but I know he was doing it out of habit. Sometimes, it's hard to let go.
It's always hard to let go.
I perked up a bit, determined to keep Ellis engaged in miscellaneous chit-chat, while he finished fixing the tire.
"Alright then. Looks like you're all set." He said, returning the fix-it kit to my trunk.
"Thanks, L," I obliged, kissing him on the cheek. He stared at me. I produced a weak smile. "You got your tie a lil' dirty," I added, trying to wipe away the smudge. I really was glad to see him. Felt like old times. Almost.
He looked at me for another long second, then bent down and kissed my forehead.
"Now don't you drive outta here too fast on that donut. I'd hate to see you wreck this fly car of yours, trying to speed outta the 'hood and back into that high society life that keeps you so occupied."
I didn't look at him. He knew I was just a working girl, struggling to retain a few middle-class trappings. I glanced down Florence Avenue, unfazed by two crackheads across the street, who were engaged in a crackhead argument.
"You know, Sccop, everybody 'aint as lucky as you."
I threw up my hands. "Ohh, now here we go. What the hell is that supposed to mean?" The Beverly Hills' polish was fading.
"Don't mean nothin', Ms. Asha Gray," Ellis replied, calmly. "Doesn't mean a damn thing. I just thought you'd have it in you to donate some of your time toward something positive, that's all. Or that you could at least have the decency to decline personally. The avoidance method is a little outdated, don't you think?"
I could hear children laughing; taunting: Scoop don't never wanna walk on this side of the street! She says she can still see the chalk lines from when Buck Junior got kilt! Scaredy-cat, scardey-cat! She just a big old scaredy-cat!
I shut my eyes, tight; blocking out voices again. Always blocking out voices. This time, it was Ellis:'
Hey, girl. I've called you at least five times this month, but all I get is your machine. Did you move to Jamaica and not tell anyone? Hey, look. My law school association is participating in this community action program being sponsored by the school district…they need more of us African-American professionals to come out and speak to the kids at the local middle school, who signed up for a career opportunities workshop….the group next month is from Crozier…you know, same junior high the whole crew went to….So, of course I thought of you….I think it'd be great for the kids to see some real live success stories, you know, from those of us who've been there, who've grown up in the 'hood and have made it….I'll be there. Will you at least think about it? Give me a call.
I had deleted his little messages, every last one. Ellis could keep his outreach plans to himself. Ever since college, he's always talkin' about 'the hood' this and 'the hood' that. The best thing I could do for "the 'hood," is stay out of it.
"Okay, Mr. Washington. I did receive your offer, and I regret to inform that I must decline. Satisfied?" I gave him a sarcastically professional tone, and started digging for my keys. I didn't need this bullshit, especially coming from him.
Suddenly, a sharp, crashing sound echoed through the air. I whirled around, and saw a group of gum-smacking, loud-talking girls - couldn't have been any older than fourteen - cursing and shouting at a group of loud young boys. The sound was the result of a glass beer bottle hitting the concrete; shards of glass littered the ground. The boys must have thrown it, in an effort to get the girls' attention. It was an ancient ghetto courting ritual. One that was all too familiar to me.
"You see? You see this shit?" I complained. Ellis stood looking at me, determined to stay oblivious to the goings-on. "Look, I'm outta here," I said, walking around to open my car door.
Ellis blocked my path. I knew he wasn't going to let me off that easy.
"Yeah, I see this-- this 'shit' as you call it," Ellis began, "and you act like this shit 'aint got nothin' to do with you. This is your neighborhood, and about the only time you drive through here is to hop yo' ass on the freeway. You act like this is all some distant memory."
It wasn't true. He didn't know, I could still feel the rhythm of my feet beneath urban concrete, ropes whirling around me, little black girls' chanting:
I went down-town, to see James Brown…He gave me a nic-kel, to buy me a pic-kle…
I could still feel every swing and merry-go-round I ever played on; every bike I ever rode through these city streets. Every piece of candy I ever tasted from the corner liquor store. But the sweetness of these things were too intertwined with tears, pain, and heartache.
C'mon Scoop, stop skatin' and come inside! They shootin' around the corner again…
I could never separate them. So I didn't try.
"And who the hell are you now, Jesse Jackson?" I countered.
"What I'm saying is, Scoop - Asha - whoever you are these days --Just come down and talk to these kids. You've got something to offer. Too many of us make it out, and never return! Sure, we've seen a lot. Too much, maybe. But we survived, didn't we? That's something to be proud of. We made it."
"Damn, Ellis, what you want me to do, hand out a fuckin' flyer?" I asked. "'I survived welfare and crappy inner city public school education. The crack era and the gang wars and the riots!'" I got dramatic.
"'Hey look me! I survived ghetto girl stupidity! Battle scars from the schoolyard. Getting pregnant at sixteen! Survived watching my neighborhood being constantly brutalized by the police. Survived watching all the fucked up shit people do to each other, when they're angry and broke, and can't find another way.'
"Keep it down, Scoop." Ellis said.
People were pausing to stare. We must have looked like two young, makin'-things- happen black professionals, standing beside our nice cars in our fancy clothers. We probably looked like we were discussing an important business deal. We weren't. We were just two kids from around the way.
"Yeah, I made it, alright." I mumbled. "Barely."
"Besides, don't you think you owe it to your-"
"Owe it to who, Ellis? Who? If anything, somebody owes me!"
"You always think it's about you," Ellis said, disgusted. "It 'aint about you, don't you understand that?"
"Who is it about, then? How come you aren't out there bothering the rest of our crew?" I didn't wait for his answer. "That's because they 'aint around! Everyone is either in the penn for selling crack, strung out on it, or was killed behind some bullshit because of it! God, that's why I hate this place! Somebody's always gettin' robbed or jacked or shot for no reason! You, of all people, should be able to understand!"
"You 'aint the only one hurtin', Scoop."
"Don't start-," I said. I didn't like where he was going.
"You gotta find a way to heal," Ellis said. "Make the pain work for you. Use it to do good. Asha, listen to me. You have to put the past behind you. Look toward the future."
"What," I scoffed, "like you? You got it all figured out don't you, with your little ideas and your little programs. Act like nothing ever even happened, like everything is just fine!"
"I hurt too, Asha. I get angry, too. But I can't let it consume me."
"You don't know what this is like! You don't kno--"
Ellis slammed his fist on the car hood. "He was my brother, too!" he exploded. "You're so selfish and hard-headed, been that way since you were a kid! What, you think just because me and Malik didn't have the same blood runnin' through our veins, he wasn't a part of me, too? Hunh? Is that what you think!"
I buried my face in my hands. I didn't want to do this.
"All of us took a bullet that night, remember? Remember! You never want to talk about what happened! You been carrying this stuff inside you, lettin' it eat you up for almost half your life! It wasn't our fault Asha, don't you understand?"
"I don't want to hear it!"
My mind replayed the chorus of my beloved 2Pac song. I've suffered through the years……and shed so many tears... I've lost so many peers…and shed so many tears...
"It was just some ignorant fools, shootin' up the neighborhood, Asha. Dead souls." Ellis paused briefly, then continued. "Malik thought your graze was more serious than it was... You were screamin' so much, he musta thought it was because you were hurt bad… He thought it was more than you just being scared…..He ran off, trying to get help…he didn't realize how bad off he was himself…"
I heard Malik's voice. My brother. My twin. My prince and protector.
Stay with her, L, I'm gon' get us some help. I'll be right back. Please, don't let her die.
"He wasn't thinking about himself, he was trying to save you. I knew the shot in my leg wasn't that serious, but I couldn't walk. I wanted to stop him, but he was gone before I could even protest. He was my brother too, Scoop..he was my brother, too…."
I was sobbing. Ellis was trying to hold his together, too. We stood there, holding onto each other. Crying for ourselves; for Malik. Crying for the lost days of candy bags and ice cream cones and hide 'n go seek. The days before lives were shattered in a hail of gunshots, on a warm summer night in the ghetto.
When I calmed down some, I looked at my watch - it was seven-thirty. I had missed class. But boy, was I gettin' the lesson.
Ellis spoke first, as he wiped my tears, then his own. "He wanted me to look after you, knucklehead. Always did. Which wasn't a very easy thing to do. It had its repercussions."
"What chu mean?" I sniffed, wiping mascara and eyeliner off my tear-streaked face. "You got a tissue? I can't be walkin' around with snot hangin' out my nose."
"Naw," he said, inspecting my nostrils. "You cool. Remember Fat Tommy? The one I use to beat down all the time for messin' with you? I saw him in the barber shop not too long ago. That brotha was still holdin' a grudge from elementary school!"
"Oh, yeah?" I chuckled a bit at the thought. Ellis usta kick his ass on the regular.
"Yeah. But we sat and talked for a minute; worked things out. He's doing pretty well for himself. He owns that barber shop down on the Shaw, near 54th. Started an internship for some of the young brothas around the way, who are interested in learnin' how to cut."
"Fo sheezie. You sound surprised!"
"Scoop, think about it. When we were coming up, who did we have? I mean, aside from our moms', who caught nothin' but hell from everyone for being single mothers… Just for being determined to raise us up decent, when our father's were too weak or too broken to do any of us any good."
I thought about it.
"You know, I just can't sit up here, cryin' 'bout what I didn't have or didn't get when I was a kid. That's for punks, who just wanna feel sorry for themselves and have everybody join in with them. I 'aint tryin' to represent like that."
I could tell he'd really thought about all this. I stayed quiet. For a refreshing change.
"See," Ellis continued, "they need to believe that all the decent black men are dead, or too self-absorbed to go back where they came from…or that we can't disagree with one another without picking up a gun. But it just isn't true, Scoop. Look at me and Tommy. As much as I beat his ass, he'd have every right to come huntin' me down. But we stood there, hugged, and shook hands. There were other lil' brothas there, too, lookin' at us. They watched two black men squash a twenty year old beef. Nonviolently. And with respect."
"Breaking the cycle, right? Setting a positive example. An 'each one, teach one' kinda thing'." I answered.
"That's right, babygirl. Somebody's gotta do it. We gotta represent. And no matter how strong a black man may be, if he's wise, he knows he can't do it all by himself……….."
I looked at him. My L.
My brother, too.
"We need all the beautiful, powerful, and as equally wise black women we can get." Ellis smiled. "Little girls in the 'hood need guidance, too."
"'Aint that the truth."
"Malik's…" Ellis swallowed hard, and looked away. He started again. "Malik's spirit is with me wherever I go. Every second of every single day. It's not about me, Scoop. It's about him. Honoring his memory….I've learned it's not about what you do for yourself…but what you're willing to do for someone else. Maybe if someone had invested some time with those fools before they shot up their own neighborhood….. Maybe, Malik would have had a chance. That's why I've got to give something back. I owe him that." He looked deep into my eyes. "I owe him at least that."
Tears started falling from my eyes again. God, I missed my twin.
"He was always so damn proud of you. He told me about your plans for the future."
My thoughts slipped again.
Momma always says we're special Scoop, me and you. Said we gonna do something great one day…maybe since I'm good at building stuff, I'll be an architect or somethin'…..maybe I'll build a city somewhere…and seeing how you like to write those stories all the time, maybe you can be a newpaper reporter…just you wait Scoop, you gon' be writin' somethin' special about me one day...
He was right. Malik and I had it all worked out. But it was like my dreams had died right along with him. Man, I sure was doing a funky job, upholding my end of the bargain. My twin wouldn't have liked this one bit. Well, that was definitely gonna change. Because after all - it 'aint about me. It was all so much bigger than that.
I gave a heavy sigh, although my heart was lighter than it had been in a long, long time. "Well, Mr. Ellis Washington, Black Man Extraordinaire," I exhaled. "Here's to the future."
"Welcome, Ms. Asha Gray, Beautiful Nubian Queen." Ellis hugged me, tight. "Welcome back."
My agent just called, and I can't believe it. Bookstores are calling from all over the country, demanding to be sponsors for the next booksigning event. My next booksigning!
I called Ellis on his cell. I knew he was on a field trip to the science museum, with a group of kids from the Boys and Girl's club. I had to tell someone else the news.
"Can you believe it?" I screamed after I gave him the details, unable to contain myself. "Can it really be true?"
"Yes, Asha," he laughed; his wonderful, smiling laugh. "It's really true. Tell her, kids--"
I heard him mumble something.
"Yeeesssss, Ms. Asha," I heard more than a dozen joyful, vibrant screaming voices in the background, "it really is true!"
It felt good to hear voices that didn't haunt me. They didn't know it, but I was on my knees, holding the phone. Giving thanks. Crying. Laughing. Soaring.
But not for me -- for them. Because unlike Malik-- and so many others--they were getting their chance.
"Anndd," Ellis continued. "We're all coming to the booksigning tonight. The kids know all about you. You're a hometown hero, Scoop. Straight representin!'
"Ha ha. Tonight's at Eso Won, right? Six o'clock?"
"You got it, Mr. Washington. See you then."
It's amazing how short a time it takes for wonderful things to happen. It was less than a year ago, that I began to let go of the past, and started reaching for a future. A future like the one Malik and I dreamed about, so many years ago. I stopped being angry over my non-promotion, and started to concentrate on my own thing. Everyday after work, I would come home, kick off my heels, and write.
I cried a lot in the beginning. It's a trip when you find how much you've really stuffed down inside of yourself. I cried for Malik. I cried for my friends and relatives who didn't make it. I cried for every little black girl and boy whose spirit died, before they could find their way.
I cried for Ellis, too. I was so engulfed in my own pain and loss all these years, I had hadn't considered his. Not only did he lose Malik too, he couldn't participate in his track and field events any longer, due to his wounded knee. His hopes for securing a sports scholarship to college were destroyed, but he didn't let that stop him. Brotha ended up attending USC on a full academic scholarship. It's like they say - can't keep a good black man down! Not for long, anyway.
So, I wrote for all of us; I had to record all of our stories. Before I knew it, I had written an entire book. I handed the manuscript over to a few agents, and like they say - the rest is history. And of course, you know that I'm donating a portion of my profits to the community center in my old 'hood, right! Absolutely.
Now, here I sit, holding my bestselling book in my hands, still unable to believe it all. Ellis hasn't seen the dedication yet; I wanted it to be a surprise. I swear, I'm just gonna look at it one more time:
This book is dedicated to everyone who believed in me, when I couldn't. Thanks mommy, your little girl done good! Malik, my Shining Black Prince, this is for you…I kept my promise. See you when I get there, I love you. To every little boy and girl growin' up in the 'hood - Keep your head up. God's got a dream for you.
PS - Yo, Ellis! Where's my 2Pac CD?