Summer's Brown Sugar
by Kimeko Farrar
The summer heat never bothered me as a kid. Humidity was just another word, as common as grape Kool-Aid. If the weather had been unusually cool one summer I probably would have lost my mind. For me, the heat of the summer was a welcome constant, amongst other things, but I think the summer sun made me foolish as a teenager.
When I was about 14 years old Brown Sugar, my Dad's Chevy truck, was always parked in the driveway. It was the color of bronzed coffee. The words Brown Sugar were airbrushed on the front license plate and it was Sunday-morning-church-vehicle clean everyday. Dad never used it for hauling anything and he rarely let anyone else drive it. Not even Mama. The only time I went near it was to grab some loose change he kept in the console between the tan cloth bucket seats. To satisfy my unyielding sweet tooth I would take enough to buy a sugary treat like a Push-Up ice cream or a Goo-Goo Cluster from the old country store at the end of Bottoms Road. I only took a little at a time so he wouldn’t notice that anything was missing. No more than 75 cents or a dollar. I swear he kept at least $30 worth of coins in that console.
My daddy grew up in a house with ten brothers and sisters so he treasured everything that was his, especially money and food. My little brother, Leon, and I were careful not to let him catch us eating his lunch meat, particularly the red peppered deli ham pushed way in the back of the refrigerator. We were slick, at least that’s what we thought. Ham thieves, we would share one slice between us and rub our stomachs in victory. It didn’t really matter that we couldn’t taste that one piece of paper-thin sliced ham.
Leon was usually the mastermind behind the plans but I was good with the follow through. If we wanted corn flakes at night we would eat a bowl in the bathroom while pretending to be on the toilet so we wouldn’t get caught. Needless to say, we had gotten very good at being sneaky but it was mostly just the average kid’s stuff. We were thick as thieves too, the mocha version of Bonnie and Clyde; I guess you could say Bertha and Cleophus. My brother was my shadow and I was his but nothing stays the same forever. I learned that the hard way.
The seasons changed like clockwork in the South and we changed too. Eventually, snatching a few shiny quarters to buy a red soda pop and a Nestle Crunch had lost some of its appeal. One humid summer day I had outgrown the needs of Bertha and Cleophus, I ate more chicken and biscuits than sweets and I got my first taste of boy craziness. One after the other, those experiences turned out to be as bittersweet as wild muscadine grapes.
“Shut up, you move!”
“Your boney elbow is poking me.” Leon mushed me in the head with the palm of his hand. I stumbled off my tiptoes and lost my spot at the window.
“I can’t stand you Leon with your nappy head.” I got directly in his face, both fists balled tight at my sides and head cocked like a New Jersey ghetto chick, ready to pop him as hard as I could. At the very last moment I decided not to. I had been his protector ever since he was little, even when he was wrong. I relaxed my fists and sucked in the summer air through my teeth.
“I only let you get away with being a jerk because you’re my little brother.”
Leon tugged at the window screen to pry it open some more and then rolled his eyes at me as if to say “whatever”.
“Who saved your butt from Mickey when he had you in a full nelson? Me. Who signs your report card when it’s full of C’s and D’s? Umm, that’s me too. And who doesn’t tell Mama when you climb out the window at night to go see fast tail Melissa? Let’s see, that’s me again. Now that I think about it you should really pay me for my loyalty Leon.”
“Glad to know it, now get over it”, Leon said in a smart alecky tone that worked my nerves.
Instead of punching him in his right eye I stuck my tongue out at him. Lending him my snack money for the week probably would have given me the same amount of satisfaction but I couldn’t think of anything else to do. I tried to reclaim my position by pushing him with my hips but my jelly sandals had no grip on the linoleum so I slid all over the floor. I didn’t care though. I kept trying anyway and Leon, 25 pounds heavier than me, continued to look out the window with a triumphant grin on his face.
“Will you stop being so loud before Dad hears us. You know he’ll make us get out of their bathroom and we’ll miss everything. I’ll make room for you if you chill out, alright?” He kept his word. He usually did with me.
“Hey everybody look! Leon and Lela are propped up in the window again like mannequins at Sears. What’s wrong, mama and daddy won’t let their precious little babies leave the house?”
Mickey was looking up at us and moving his cradled arms back and forth like he was rocking a baby. He was acting a dang fool and dancing on my last nerve as usual.
“At least we have a daddy Mickey!” I said.
Oooohh’s broke out from the crowd.
“If your feet run as fast as your mouth does you may have a chance of winning.”
One thing I never had to worry about was neck rolling. My neck roll was fierce and each head tilt and finger snap stung like curse words. Leon nudged me hard with his shoulder but I knew he approved of my comeback. He would have pushed me clean over the sink and out of my spot for snapping on his friends if he wasn’t impressed. We looked down at the crowd of kids gathered on Pine Lane, the street that ran beside our house. My brother yelled down at the crowd, to Mickey in particular.
“Are you guys gonna race or what? I can’t stand in this window all day just looking at y’all do nothing. I have better things to do.”
Our parent’s bathroom window was prime real estate for my brother and me. From that window we could see everything that went on in our neighborhood. Neighbors fighting over who drank the last beer, soul train lines at backyard barbeques and Mickey throwing firecrackers at old ladies walking up the street. Our house was at the center of the neighborhood and that bathroom window was our lifeline to it all because we rarely were able to leave our front yard.
Mickey and Kurtis were trading insults at each other before the race when a sandy-haired boy with droopy wino eyes walked out of the Johnson house. His sneakers were thrown over his shoulders by their fat white laces. “I got winner”, the cute new kid said. He had a slight accent and I couldn’t immediately tell where he was from but nothing about him screamed Bottom Bend Housing.
Mickey looked at the kid from head to toe, literally. He had muscular arms and a curly fade. I instantly became nervous for the guy. Mickey never strayed away from a confrontation and a new barefoot kid was the perfect target for him to prove that he was in control of our block.
“Who are you”, Mickey asked?
“I’m Red from Chicago. Me and my mom just moved down South and we're visiting my Uncle Stanley."
Mickey looked at him like he was trying to validate his story in his head somehow.
“Okay city boy, when I beat this Rick James look-alike you’re next”, Mickey said while staring directly at Kurtis whose curl was dripping something awful. "The first one to touch the third mailbox wins”, he said.
Mickey made Kurtis eat the dust from his Adidas but he didn't beat Red that day. When the race was over I knew I was going to experience a summer like no other and I don’t mean 100 degree heat. Over the next couple of weeks I became quite infatuated with Red. His Midwest swagger was intoxicating and his droopy eyes zapped my energy whenever I was around him. He was rough around the edges but not country like Mickey and the rest of the crew. Red visited Mr. Johnson a lot and he always motioned for me to come over. Brown Sugar was the perfect cover when I wanted to steal a few moments with him. The only thing standing between my yard and his uncle’s yard was Brown Sugar and a line of overgrown hedges that served as the property divider. Mama fussed at Dad a lot about those hedges too.
“Eloise, the roots of those hedges belong to Stanley so I’m not trimming one thin branch. They are his problem. If I start messing with them I’ll always have to trim them. Now that’s all I have to say about that.”
I didn't mind the hedges though. I liked running through the tall bushes and pulling the leaves from the branches. When Red was around the hedges were our meeting place since I couldn't leave the yard without permission. I always leaned against the back of Brown Sugar near the tailgate and Red would stand in the space between two bushes. That’s where I had my first kiss. By then I wasn’t stealing quarters as much, only occasionally. I didn’t want to get fat from eating all those sweets. My body was starting to catch up with my mouth. I guess I was a little pre-occupied with Red too. For a while there were three constants in my life. Like a gnat my brother was always buzzing around me, Brown Sugar was always parked in the same spot in the driveway, and Red showed up to visit every other day.
Late one evening Red and I were watching for shooting stars and I could smell the honeysuckles growing through the hedges. I don’t remember us having a conversation. We were just relaxing and leaning against Brown Sugar as usual. That’s when it happened. Red leaned in to kiss me on the lips. My first thought was if I should tilt my head and close my eyes like Nikki and Victor on the Young and the Restless. I did and hoped it was right. I was so nervous that I forgot to breathe and I felt light headed. We said our goodbyes before I passed out but as I walked away from the truck I decided to snatch five dimes to buy candy the next day. Nothing fancy, maybe just peppermint. Old habits die hard.
Summer vacation was going great. Red had shaken up the folks in our little neighborhood. He always seemed to be one step ahead of us in the cool department. His clothes, his shoes, his haircut, his demeanor, even the things he talked about were different. Leon and the rest of the guys followed his lead and hung on his every word. I tried to fight it but I was no different.
It was the end of June and Valley Star Missionary Baptist Church was preparing for the annual trip to Six Flags in Georgia. On the eve of the trip our yard was filled with teenagers talking about what rides they were going to get on first and who would sit with who on the bus. Most were going to sleep over at our house that night. My parents planned to drive us to meet the charter bus in the parking lot of Wal-Mart early the next morning. Because my birthday was in the middle of winter and I never had parties we decided that we would turn the day into a party for me. Summer had officially become my favorite season! My friends and I sat on the front porch and painted our fingernails fire engine red. We listened to New Edition on my boom box and discussed which one of us had the better chance of marrying Ralph Tresvant. Everybody voted for themselves. Red and the other guys had surrounded a tricked out gray Cutlass parked on the grass beside our house.
“Dang, who is that?” Carolyn, the nosiest of the bunch was the first to speak up.
Mimi turned her head to see what was going on. “I don’t know, but it looks like a drug dealer or something.”
Leon, Red and the rest of the crew peeped in and out of the windows admiring the vehicle when all of a sudden, like a UFO, the bottom of the car began to glow blue light. Oohs and aahs, you’re the man, and hand slaps commenced. We girls jumped from the porch to check it out, leaving a mess of polish, cotton balls, Pringles and Check cola cans all over the place. The driver’s door opened and Samir, scraggly looking and dressed in all black when it was hot as hades, stepped out. Red went over to dap him up.
“What’s up cuz! When did you get out?”
Samir, the problem child of Bottom Bend, was Stanley Johnson’s son and Red’s cousin. He had been in and out of trouble since he was 14 and had just done fifteen months in prison for selling dope.
“I just got out a few weeks ago. I heard that you were down here so I had to come holla at my lil homie.”
“Cuz, your ride is all that.” Red walked completely around the Cutlass checking it out with my brother on his heels.
“Just got it out of a shop in D.C. I had it customized. Dudes down here ain’t doing it like this yet.”
I stood back, away from everybody else with my arms folded across my chest and attitude on my face. I couldn’t stand Samir. He was trouble. He was a show-off, he was always out for self and he was sneakier than a crackhead at midnight. I didn’t want to have anything to do with him. All the guys of Bottom Bend admired Red and Red seemed to admire Samir. That made me nervous. Red was talking to Samir and grinning from ear to ear. When he caught my eye he walked over to me and gently massaged my arm. I melted like butter and every thought I had before that vanished into the evening breeze.
“Hey Lela, can I borrow some socks?”
“A pair of my socks? Would you prefer tube socks or lace”, I asked throwing up my hands in a fit of laughter.
“These country mosquitoes are biting my ankles girl. Gym socks will do.”
I wanted to ask more questions and crack jokes about him having sensitive city-fied ankles but I was mesmerized by his sleepy eyes. It seemed that everybody had developed a bad case of the mosquito ankle bites all of a sudden. I rummaged through my dresser and found three pair of my good basketball socks to give them. We were still standing on the corner when Mama walked out the front door. She saw the mess and immediately had a cursing fit.
“I know your asses did not leave this mess on my porch! Clean up this junk before it draws ants and get in the house.”
All the girls said in unison, “Yes Mrs. Hawkins.”
We bounced back to the yard and grabbed our neglected items from the porch before going into the house. The boys didn’t move. They continued to huddle around the Cutlass.
“Leon, come on!” I shouted to my brother and everybody else but they ignored me. “Leon, you’re gonna get in trouble, come on.” Again no response. “Humph!” I was tired of being the mother hen anyway so I slammed the front door and joined my company. From the bay window I watched the guys pile into the Cutlass. They sped off with the stereo blasting, hanging from the windows and rapping the lyrics like they were in a hip-hop video.
Mimi, Danyelle, Carolyn and me sat in the living room giggling and waving our newly painted pink fingernails in the air to dry. I was glad that the boys weren’t bothering us but it had been almost an hour since they left. I thought I heard tires screeching but when I looked outside I saw nothing. Not even the blue light from the space-Cutlass. My father and mother were in the next room. They hadn’t asked about Leon yet and I wasn’t going to tattle on him. First and foremost, I didn’t want to ruin my party. I was enjoying my summer birthday. The phone rang and I jumped over the girls sprawled out in front of the floor model TV but someone beat me to answering it. I collapsed in laughter thinking about the Flo Jo skills I had just displayed.
“Lord have mercy!” I heard my mom’s voice over the screaming girls.
I stood at attention and shushed everyone so I could hear better.
“The police have Leon at the end of Bottoms laid out in the street. They say he stole something.”
I could barely make out Mama’s ranting and raving but I heard `Leon stole something` very clearly.
“If those crooked police touch my son I’ll burn the jailhouse down!”
Tears began to well up in my eyes and my friends circled around me as my parents rushed out the door.
The next day, trip day, was long and sad. I wished it would storm, tornado, hurricane, anything so I could get out of going. It was supposed to be one of the best days of the summer but I was embarrassed and wanted to hide on the bus. Leon and Red were on house arrest and Mama and Dad couldn’t go on the trip because of Leon. All I could think about was my brother and my first love being jail birds. With things like that on my mind how could I enjoy snow cones, roller coasters and water rides? One of the church deacons brought me home after the trip and while listening to people talk about lawyers, newspaper headlines and youth defender status my sadness turned into madness. But the ones I wanted to roll my neck at weren't within cursing distance. Both of those heathens screwed up my day and they were supposed to be my constants too. My day, my day, my day sang like an annoying verse I couldn't get out of my head.
The day that should have been my summer birthday filled with cake, ice cream and fun was tainted with drama. I was curled up in the back seat of an old rusty bus pleading with God to let my brother be okay. It took only an hour of being with Samir for them to lose their walking around sense and forget about me. They used my socks to cover their thieving hands while they smashed the windows of Bottom Bend Qwikmart. They stole money from the register, cartons of cigarettes from the glass cases, and enough guns to start a revolutionary war. Summer sucked lemons! I could no longer trust my shadow and love reeked of juvenile delinquency. I couldn’t understand it. Breaking and entering was a long way from taking a slice of Dad’s ham or a few nickels and dimes. Red, with his curly-haired self, had the nerve to call and ask me to come visit him since he couldn’t leave the house. I hung up the phone so hard, I know the wall shook.
It took a few minutes to calm down but I did. Afterwards, I stepped out onto the porch and the birds were singing like nothing was wrong and all was right in Bottom Bend. Out the corner of my eye I saw Brown Sugar, my only constant left, shining in the sunlight. In broad daylight I moved towards my old buddy. In ten seconds flat I had opened the door, grabbed a few dollars, stuck the coins in my pocket and retreated. I began to walk down the street, headed for Bottom Bend Qwikmart to get a Sugar Daddy and then I stopped like I hit a wall. Surely I wouldn’t be welcome at that store now. Not after what had happened. Maybe I couldn’t go there ever again. I walked back towards the driveway and sat on the tailgate of Brown Sugar, my bony legs swinging back and forth, kicking up dust. For the first time that summer I felt like the kid I really was and a little cold. But most importantly I had a pocket full of money and nowhere to spend it.