by Gry Hala
It cost me good money to bring you into this world, and some high-up cracker gon’ get paid when you die too.
She told me this many times, those words ringing in my head like Sunday church bells. But I never went to church. Perhaps that’s why those bells rung so loud, cast like a final call over the streets so every sinner chasing a high could hear. Perhaps, too, that was why my mother always told me of death and money and white folks, hoping I’d hear truth and heed religion before the final call of God choked on the silence of my death.
My breath feels like fire. My body seems to weigh a ton. I try to move my arms and my legs, to flap around like some human angel drowning in snow. I only manage to wiggle a toe and lift a hand toward the paint-chipped ceiling set to crash like falling rain on this sinful body at any moment.
I wish she was here now, my mother. Some high-up cracker got rich from her death a few days ago, but she deserved the high-end casket, the type of bronze-backed angel ride to heaven she couldn’t afford in life. It was all I could do. I considered it a going-away present, the type of gift I hadn’t given her since the day I was born. Truth is we hadn’t spoken for years before her heart attack. Wait. To be honest, we hadn’t spoken for years, not since I last hacked up some drivel about hunger and thirst, and she offered a tit to shut me up.
I cough up something thick and wet. And then I hear those church bells again. I hear her words so often it’s like they’re lodged between the echoes of my heart. And that, too, is fading away, growing as silent as my breath and as silent as my memories of it all, as silent as the church bells stroking every street corner in Chicago, silent, silent, silent until all that remains is the blood-stained money in my pocket to pay for death.
The sun spills over my face, blinding me to the world, awakening me from a dream. I grunt and toss over, burying my face in a pillow. Heat touches my back, caressing me like a lover. I throw the sheet off me and sit up. I yawn. I stretch and glance at the clock. It’s almost seven o’clock in the evening.
I take a shower, trying in vain to wipe away lipstick and sweat and funk and bullshit from my pores. It ain’t no use. I’ve been touched with the funk of bullshit years ago.
I turn off the water and hear her making her way through the kitchen, fighting with pots and pans, making noise only to keep hearing truth, moving just to keep from standing still and remembering.
“Hey ma,” I say over my shoulder, rushing into my room where the sun burns the walls gold.
“Kenneth,” she calls, every syllable stressed, the ‘th’ emphasized in the manner of policemen and job interviewers.
I appear at the door.
“You comin’ today?” she asks.
I shake my head. It’s better not to speak aloud an abomination. She looks at me for a moment, for a lifetime, awaiting her advent. She birthed me, giving me life once. And then my father died and something inside me died and something inside her withered, awaiting the sun and a touch of water the same as she awaited Jesus and His healing word or the dealer and his healing vial. Except she looked at me, now, the same way she looked at The Bible and at the vial. My stomach turned over. My mouth felt dry. I turned away from her. I had no words to give, barely had anything left for myself. A man has no words when he’s chasing a dream across darkness and concrete.
“You ain’t come since Jackie died,” she says. “And that really don’t much count.”
“Why won’t you come today?”
I look at her. “Ain’t no funeral.”
“That’s my point, Kenneth. The minister’ll preach for the livin’ today.”
“Ain’t no livin’ goin’ on ‘round here.”
“You breathin’ aint’cha?”
“Breathin’ what? Cigarette smoke and an addict’s piss? I told Larry and the rest a’them to keep them goddamn hypes off the floor.”
“They ain’t so bad. They watch what’s goin’ on ‘round here, you know. You’re hardly here. A woman needs a man sometimes…any man.” She lowers her head, as if in prayer. “Sometimes they come in and…”
“Come in!” I step away from the door, almost forgetting to hold the towel against my privates. “You let those pissy-ass hypes in our house?”
“Our house?” She snaps out of her high and puts her hands on her hips. “Oh, you’re claiming this now?”
Something falls within me. I’d given up already. Ain’t got the heart to fight her anymore. “You know what I mean.”
“That’s the problem. I don’t know nothing ‘bout you no more.”
We reached a stand-off, looking at each other, trying to find what we once knew. There wasn’t anything but silence; there was nothing more to say, nothing left to do but scream and cry. I heard that enough when I was a boy, back when I couldn’t control what goes on between cement walls.
I turned into the room, leaving her with pots and pans and space to fight a memory.
Chicago is brutal, but beautiful, in winter. The sun rises over the John Hancock building and over Navy Pier, shining like a streak of lightning, growing in size and strength until it hangs in the sky like a puppet at noon, dangling on some hidden string, its glow unconvinced and undecided, opening the streets and melting snow for a few hours before it drops like a lost dream over the high-rise concrete blocks that make up Stiller projects.
I was born within this city of bullshit and bratwursts, within the walls of a city-approved prison cell. The halls of Stiller are just as cold as the streets, the adults just as lifeless, mumbling curses through twisted lips and vacant eyes, the children just as jaded, smoking dope and drinking sin because they already understood life as a dice game, lives rolling over concrete to the beat of a hustler’s whistle, death resting between every spasm of the heart.
I think about all that as I skip down the steps, dodging drug paraphernalia and used condoms, crushed beer cans and junkies too cold to set fire to a dream.
“Kenneth,” someone mumbles, the sound soft and reverent, as if spoken with someone’s God in mind.
I don’t turn around. I’ve left this world behind long ago, the same as God. Only come back on impulse to check on my mother and hide a few bills in her panty drawer. I hadn’t planned on falling asleep in my old bedroom last night. Sometimes, especially when I sit on my old twin mattress and look at the pock-marked concrete walls, I imagine images on a canvass, random days and nights, words and faces, and I get caught up in a dream. And then I lay back and light a joint, and I relax within the warmth of yesterday, disappearing within the shadow of a blanket and the light of my high.
That all happened last night. But this morning was different. I promised myself yesterday would be the last night I fell asleep in a bed built for a little boy. My father was dead and my mother was a welfare woman struggling with addiction. There wasn’t shit I could do for her, especially after she failed to look after me and keep the heat on. Her empty pockets and greedy habit almost gave me frostbite in the toes once. The doctors at Cook County shook their heads and practically begged me to report my mother to the Department of Children and Family Services. Back then, all I could do was tell and lie and hope my mother would change. It’s the same now. All I could do is leave money and hope she won’t smoke it up.
“Kenneth,” someone else calls, the sound blown apart by wind.
The cold hits my face like a fist. I narrow my eyes and rush past the lookout boys huddled in bunches like desperate pigeons. They look my way, of course. I nod. They nod back, some inching a step closer as if to ask for a handout. Ain’t got no bread for them. I ain’t got anything but the sun in my face and hard memories on my back.
I found out she died the day I was promoted Assistant Sales Manager of the Midwest Region of Adpoint Advertising Agency. Adpoint provided a wonderful job, complete with a seventy-five thousand dollar reward for four years of study at DePaul University. I made more money since graduation than my mother and father made their whole lives. I had a respectable name and job title (also better than my parents), even screwed several blonde employees in the lunch room when the office was dark and quiet, left to the few hopeless souls brown-nosing with overtime. The job also provided a means to spread my drug business, since trips to Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa and Indiana to meet potential clients were routine. I started as a scout for the Black Flag street gang, then, after months of research, built a portfolio of contacts and territories, and decided to cut the middle-man out and branch out on my own. It’s what all the big corporations did in order to become bigger. I didn’t need nameless, faceless men watching out for me the same as I didn’t need a preachy-mouthed father or a shifty-eyed mother.
But the high-up crackers at the ad agency were a necessity, same as Jesus to the religious, I suppose. They set me up in four-star hotels, gave me a per-diem and a rental car, practically paid me to spread my wings as a drug dealer. I bought my product wholesale from Mexicans too illegal to be pimped in fancy kitchens, those too suspect to clean your homes or mow your lawns. They are the type with tattoos on their faces and accents so heavy their voices are a cross between a command and an expletive. I purchased marijuana and cocaine, outsourced packaging to a group of Filipinos on the North Side, and, after leaving them a cut of drugs and ten percent of the total shipment, I sold in a Stiller building exclusively, minimizing headaches by serving a market in which I shamefully knew too well. I always made a profit, something large enough to make the risk worth the trouble, but small enough to keep the neighboring syndicates at bay.
My father was a Minister at the New Hope Baptist church that sat in the middle of the U-shaped Stiller buildings at the corner of State Street and Pershing Road. After working eight hours sweeping and mopping floors, he visited almost every gang-banging, drug-dealing man in Cook County jail, considering it his duty to save the bereaved, hoping to scrub them just as clean as those downtown floors. He would come home tired, ragged, smelling of bleach, and eat his cheap dinner on his faded auburn-colored Sunday chair, staring at the television without much of a blink. I would watch him as he watched Hollywood. I always wondered what he saw within those small-screened dreams.
Perhaps my father’s benevolence to convicts allowed me unrestrained access to sixteen floors on one side of the Stiller apartments at 3128 State.
I ain’t ever been a thug. The girls call me too pretty for a street fight, and the boys swear I’m too handsome to carry a pistol, much less curse a threat. My fifth grade teacher once said I have the smile of a movie star. But I have no interest in Hollywood sitcoms and movies. The pay is too unpredictable. Besides, the black boys always die first.
“Where you goin’?”
The voice shocks me, almost stops me. I turn, still walking from the Stiller building, those boys still bunched like pigeons, necks twisting as their eyes searched for another crumb and another day. And then I stop. I recognize the face. Her black eyes hide so much pain, the type of pain that can’t fade behind blush and mascara.
“Home,” I say, my voice strained in the cold. I see my ghost floating off my face, rising to the sun as January mist. “Just checkin’ on my mom.”
“You always just checkin’ in.” She half-laughs, half-bends over to vomit. “Don’t stay long for nothin’.” I keep quiet. She shrugs and straightens, catching her fall. “Well,” she starts, not knowing where to go in the silence, “it was good seein’ you.”
I look at her and wonder where her beauty went. Sucked into a pipe or rotted within the metal of a spoon. I feel the weight of her eyes and dig deeper into my pockets, searching for an answer. I’m the fool who used to make love to her. But all things fall apart, especially in the ghetto. After we broke up, she decided to stitch together her broken heart with a needle and a prayer.
“Same,” I say.
I close the door tight and start the engine, almost screaming over the music as she fades into the distance.
The call came at night. I almost missed it. I was between a new pair of legs, my mind clogged from the long day and the bottle that sat half-full on the side table. I let go my ghost in the girl and was catching my breath between her breasts when the telephone rang. I cursed and reached into darkness. The receiver felt heavy, the voice on the line cold, final.
“Kenneth Teague?” it said.
My heart paused; I didn’t even breathe.
“It’s Jason…Jason Leak from Stiller.”
I came back to life and breathed.
I get off the girl and sit up. Only a select few Stiller residents have the number. I knew it was serious. I flashed a glance at the clock. It was just past midnight.
“It’s your mother,” Jason continued. There was a silence, heavy and ragged, like a missed note of music. “She had another heart attack.”
“Where is she?” I asked, almost by reflex. I was very familiar with the routine of overdosing and heart attacks.
I glance at the girl, ashamed to have forgotten her name.
“C’mon, man, I ain’t got all goddamn day.”
When you hear those words, the world turns very black. And within this darkness you realize you’ll remain blind, forever. Sure, the sun will rise, carrying the burden of a new day, but the world is forever changed, your heart forever…withered, like a flower left to die at midnight.
I blink. I breathe. I study my bare foot, and then my limp sex, moving my eyes just to fight a memory.
I almost jump. “What?”
“Did you hear me?”
“Yeah.” I straighten, hoping to sound strong, like a man, like my father when he stood on the pulpit, full of the spirit that could guide a lost people home. “Where she at?” I say as the girl’s hand strokes my back, as if to put heaven back together again. He voices an answer, from very far away. I try to grab his voice and anchor my life within the cold, unforgiving world, but it’s hopeless. I’m lost without the home of a womb.
The choir sung as if to grab the attention of God. The minister tried his best to feel The Word. The organist raised tears with every keystroke. The pews were full. I did not cry. I felt eyes on me, waiting for the fall. But I could not cry. Her dress was new, her bronze casket top-of-the-line. It was all I could do.
The apartment was untouched, the five one-hundred dollar bills still folded beneath a stack of satin. I sat within the emptiness of her bedroom for a long time. I could almost hear my father walking through the hallway or humming a spiritual beneath the drone of his electric razor. I could almost hear them make love; hear her sighs and his moans. I could almost hear them shout in anger and laugh in joy, and, as memories go, I could almost hear her cry the day we found out my father died from a stray bullet sent from one of the buildings in the complex.
It was a day in late October; the month children try to rectify evil with chocolate and costumes. My father, unusually angered by the noise below, thought he would land like Jesus downstairs and bring religion to the damned. He thought his Bible a pistol, often pointing it to a blank, dark face as if to lead God to misbelievers. But in the dead of night, when men were full of liquor and women full of heat, no one notices a Bible or a preacher man. Everything is equalized in the dark; not even God knows who to save. I remember the storm of chatter and curses and radios and car engines and horns sounding like a cataract, and then a single shot falling from heaven like a faltered church bell. And then the courtyard emptied, leaving my father in the shame of his own blood, in the shame of his own Bible, his face twisted with the shock of his reckoning.
From the bed I could see the living room sofa, could still remember the time my mother realized I sold drugs, the same drugs my father preached so faithfully against, the same drugs that turned a widow into a junkie, the same drugs that softened the walls where pain had learned to calcify into concrete.
“Where are you going?” she said, her voice struggling to convey strength. She was very high. I can hear the sound of someone’s high in the wind. It sounds of sleep deprivation.
She didn’t wait. “The world is awful large, boy. Out where?”
“To a party at Frank’s.”
She shifts in her chair. Those cushions have been uncomfortable for years, ever since my father died. “What time is it over?”
I give her a look. She stopped mothering years ago; she stopped being strong enough to care years ago. “Not until it feels over.”
“Do you want to feel my foot up your behind?”
I almost beg her to attempt to tame me. It would give me something of her besides God’s religion. It would give me her religion. But she’s too weak to move, almost too high to speak.
I twist the knob, turning over the latch and turning over my heart. I look at her thin, frail body slouched in my father’s Sunday rocker, the glare of the television on her face like a halo. Her lips are open, a cigarette hanging on. She’s nothing but a welfare woman too broken to stand straight behind a cash register or beside a clothes rack. She couldn’t even sit still for five minutes in a cubicle. I recommended her to far too many companies. She never lasted two weeks.
With my eyes on her, I thought back to the breakfasts we had as a family: English Muffins and butter and jelly, bowls of Honey-Oh’s, burnt-black hot dogs and plastic cups of Sunny Delight. My father would place his Bible at the table; mother and son were expected to consume The Word of The Lord too.
And I said, softly, rationalizing my sin and apologizing for his death, “I’ll be back for breakfast.”
I decided to sleep over at the house. It was too late to go home by the time I stood from my mother’s bed.
I slept long, deep. The morning sun hid from me.
I stand and look at the streets, grey mist rising from concrete like a ghost. A few stragglers saunter through the courtyard, searching for drugs and newspapers and coins and coffee. I take a piss and turn on the shower. I scrub deep, trying to forget yesterday. I want breakfast, and my mother and my father. The refrigerator holds expired milk, a carton of eggs, and an empty bottle of Seagram’s Gin.
I turn on my phone and ignore the voicemails. I change into the clothes I keep in the closet for days like this. I look in the mirror for a moment, for a lifetime, searching for the boy I once knew. I walk the halls my father walked, touching the breakfast table and Sunday sofa he touched, staring at the blank television screen and stone walls that imprisoned us all. And then I breathe. And then I twist the knob.
A man stands before me, cock-eyed and funky.
“What man?” I say, my voice heavy with sleep and anger.
He stumbles over his feet a moment, constantly moving, always forgetting. “Miss Teague?” he musters.
“Naw,” I say. “She gone.”
Something falls within him, a light and a care. “Gone?”
He looks at the shadows at his feet a moment, and then raised a hand. I should’ve seen it, but, perhaps, I was blinded by the light of a memory, or struggling within the darkness of her passing.
I hear a church bell, and then another, and another. I fall to my knees and taste death on my lips. The man hobbles over me and disappears into my home…my home. I think, with the instinctual callousness of a sinner, that he came too late for the five hundred dollars.
The halls, left within this same callousness, don’t even blink. No one angles a face out the door. The world doesn’t stop turning for nothing. I moan and mumble, struggling to my feet, struggling to forget the words my mother uttered since the day I was born. I fall again.
The man appears with the DVD player and toaster oven, both angled in his arms like an offering.
“Where the drugs?” he asks, in the rushed stream of sound only a hype can decipher.
I almost laugh. But it ain’t too much left within me to give; everything’s coming out as blood and tears.
“The drugs,” he repeats, shifting his feet. “Know she got some.”
And then I narrow my eyes, looking between the walls and so far deep in my mind, past the darkness of her passing, into the stainless steel toaster, and then above it all, into the eyes of a man who, on a clear, rainless day, would mirror the image of my father when, struck with thunder, he held his Bible and raised an arm, set to cast a spirit and bring judgment on the world.