Authors: Steffan Piper
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Text copyright © 2010, Steffan Piper
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
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Library of Congress Control Number
Author photos by Steffan Piper
Complete versions of the poems referenced in this novel can be found in
The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes,
published by Vintage in 1995.
Melcher Media strives to use environmentally responsible suppliers and materials whenever possible in the production of its books. For this book, that includes the use of SFI-certified interior paper stock.
The bulk of what you are about to read is true.
Certain names, places, and characterizations of certain people have been adjusted for the sake of fiction and telling a compelling story. Any unintended likeness is coincidental.
FOR MY GRANDMA, AND MY SON, FOX
DON’T BELIEVE WHAT YOU HEAR, DON’T BELIEVE WHAT YOU SEE, IF YOU JUST CLOSE YOUR EYES, YOU CAN FEEL THE ENEMY…
May 11, 1981…
May 12, 1981…
May 13, 1981…
May 14, 1981…
MAY 11, 1981…
The skin across my face was taut and smooth like plaster. My eyelids wouldn’t close, and I felt frozen in place, like a fixture. I was stretched out across my small twin bed like an old wooden toy, hoping I wouldn’t fall asleep. Staring out across my room, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the two suitcases that were neatly packed and sitting against the wall. My mother had seen to it that everything was ready to go, especially me. Just after the nine o’clock news, I was very abruptly herded off to bed wearing an old pair of pajamas that I was probably sporting for the very last time. Almost four hours later, I was still awake but fully dressed. I already had on my puffy brown windbreaker that had gotten to be a little too short in the sleeve and my brown rubber shoes that were only a buck fifty at the secondhand store, bought at the beginning of the school year. The rest of my clothes were haggard, dull, and as thin as the wallpaper of my room.
Staring at the ceiling of my bedroom, I watched the headlights of the cars passing on the street below. The shadows of the tree branches and the window frame brushed above me in a tangled gray mess. My mother and her new boyfriend, Dick, still hadn’t come back from going out for drinks, just before ten. I kept telling myself that none of this was really happening and that they would change their minds by the time they got back. I was waiting, listening for the sound of Dick’s station wagon coming up the road and into the driveway, but it just kept getting later. I listened for the engine for some time, but I was easily distracted by the ticking of the second hand on the plastic clock plugged in next to the bed. I had turned off the alarm earlier, knowing that in ten minutes, I wouldn’t be asleep.
I felt like a statue that had once stood somewhere important but was taken down, crated up, and placed into storage in a nondescript warehouse. My whole body felt like marble or bronze or whatever they might’ve made statues of me out of. Feeling cold and fragile, it was probably wax. During a school trip, I’d seen a few of those wax figures that looked somewhat real but weren’t. I remembered how impressed I was at first, until the tour guide started to explain how difficult they were to maintain, that they had to be rotated through the museum and an air-conditioned storage facility, and that they were very, very expensive. When we walked back into the large workshop, the guide showed us various parts of the wax figures being built, with several people assigned to each replicated person. I lost all interest and felt an awful sense of jealousy when the guide blurted out that the statues were like children to the people who worked at the museum. I had become light-headed and sick and threw up on the floor moments later. Nobody had cared how I was being maintained, or if the temperature of the room didn’t agree with me, or if I didn’t look just right. What I had in common with the wax figures was that we all moved around a lot and we didn’t know where we’d be put next. On display or stuffed back into storage, either way it was out of my control. My mother had often said that “children should be seen and not heard,” and being only eleven, I had heard that quite often. I got the impression that the creators of these things had probably felt the same way. I had felt an immense rush of sadness roll over me like a wave when we were ushered outside. I remembered going pale from being sick and somebody joking that I looked like one of the wax statues in the museum.
Stuck in a loop repeating the memory of the field trip in my head, Dick’s station wagon had pulled up the drive. I was jolted from my reverie by the slamming of the heavy car doors. Without turning on a light, I got up, quickly made the bed, and stood next to my suitcases. I listened to my mother and Dick laughing outside. They both sounded drunk. I stood in one spot, perfectly still like a permanent resident from the museum, careful not to let the floor creak underfoot. Dick was laughing idiotically as he fumbled with the lock on the front door. I could hear it all from my isolated position. I resisted the temptation to walk over to the window and look down. I stayed locked in the frozen moment of waiting for what was next. They had been out celebrating, although I really couldn’t say what there was to celebrate. It was two days until my twelfth birthday, so I knew that it must be too early for that. Before they had gone out, I had overheard my mother and Dick as she was getting ready in the bathroom. I’d already blocked out their conversation and couldn’t remember what she had said, knowing it was probably best to forget. If they were celebrating my leaving, I just didn’t want to think about that either.
After a few moments, my mother hurriedly began to climb the stairs. My throat tensed as she closed in on the bedroom door. The thought quickly crossed my mind that in about ten more minutes it would no longer be my bedroom door, and a few minutes after that it would no longer be my bedroom.
“Ohh…you’re already up,” she announced, surprised.
“Yeah, I just…” I mumbled softly, my words trailing off, unsure.
“Bring down your luggage and get a move on,” she commanded. I zipped up my jacket as if I had just put it on. She flipped on the light, turned, and rushed off back down the stairs. The water pipes in the walls rattled as Dick flushed the toilet downstairs in the back of the house. I gagged inside as I pictured him doing his business, drunk and trying to handle his cigarette all at once. My mother’s new would-be husband was another winner in a long line of aging thoroughbreds. One more suitor who had queued up for what he must’ve thought was something special. Dick worked as an Allstate insurance salesman near the freeway. The only thing important for me to understand about Dick was that he hated being within five feet of me. After he had moved in, I knew it was only a matter of time before I’d be shuttled off to live somewhere else or beaten half to death, which had happened before and probably wasn’t yet out of the question.
Half asleep, I pulled the heavy suitcases behind me. They thumped down the stairwell as I took each step in a daze. I felt sluggish and tired and wobbled momentarily as I descended, believing that I was going to heave over and topple downward, hopefully killing myself and bringing an end to all of it. I fantasized that my mother would feel guilty about wanting to send me away if I died, but then again, who was I trying to fool?
“Put the cases in the back of the car,” she chimed in, aloofly. “You don’t want to be late.” It was only then that I realized my mother was wearing yet another new dress, gaudy orange flowers with sprawling red leaves wrapping themselves around her nether regions like poison oak. I just couldn’t bear to look. She stank of cheap perfume and damp cigarette butts. “Your bus leaves in forty minutes.” Unable to speak, I saw Dick’s eyes following me. He could’ve helped me with the cases, but he didn’t.
“Don’t scratch my bumper putting them cases in, kid,” he announced slowly. His voice had that certain bounce to it, as if he was relieved that I was leaving.
Outside, the air was colder and it was pitch dark with no moon. The streetlights buzzed like mosquitoes as the night slowly closed in on three a.m. I carefully lifted each suitcase into the back of the station wagon and pushed the tail closed. I exhaled deeply, watching my breath explode outward into the night. Dick was eyeballing me from the porch as he lit my mother’s cigarette.
“Ugh, it’s so damn late. Let’s just get this whole thing over with,” she grunted. My mother seemed more annoyed than sad or concerned that I was leaving. She thought, as usual, that I didn’t hear what she said, but I did. Dick was Dick. In truth, it was the same as it ever was. I was again an outsider on the edges of my mother’s love life. I was always more like an unwanted roommate than her son.
Watching the house disappear behind us, I knew it was yet another one of my mother’s rented places that I would never see again. We had moved more than anybody I knew. Every year it was a new school, new friends, and a new house. Nothing ever seemed permanent, not even her. Every man seemed to change her into another woman, and every time she changed, it became harder and harder to be around her. These days, it was just impossible. Her only concern was a new dress, possibly a drink, a cigarette, and a man, all in that order. I watched her nervously inhale her cigarette as if she were trying to pose for a magazine. I wondered if this was something that all kids my age had to go through. I shifted in my seat uncomfortably as Dick weaved the car around corners, speeding to our destination.
“Remember, when you get to Los Angeles, wait for your Aunt Sharon. She’s supposed to meet you there and stay with you during the afternoon layover.”
“She’ll make sure that you eat, and she’ll probably give you some money. Don’t refuse it either. She has more than us and can afford to give you a few dollars to travel with.” Her tone was bitter, as if her sister had somehow cheated her out of something and owed her.
Dick pulled into the Greyhound station, parked in an open space close to the front, and killed the engine. It seemed as if he’d suddenly come to life and was a whole lot happier. He was as smug as my mother, and it was then that I realized they probably deserved each other and whatever horrible fate awaited them.
“Hey kid, let me help you with your things,” he piped in, as he quickly sprang from the car like a hotel valet and circled to the rear, opening the tail to grab the cases. My mother was already heading toward the ticket window; the clicking of her orange heels struck against the pavement with a rapid sense of desperation. Everything was happening so fast that I didn’t know what to think. I wanted to crawl back into bed or bite down on a cyanide pill like trapped Nazis did in old movies.
“One-way ticket to Altoona, Pennsylvania, through Los Angeles and Mount Vernon, Missouri, please.” I stood back as my mother barked her commands at the lady behind the ticket window. The way she spoke to people made me want to crawl in a hole.
“Okay, just a moment. It’s going to take me a few minutes to check the schedules,” the woman rejoined, bowing her head and pouring her fingers over schedules that looked like endless grids of multidigit numbers.
“That’s fine,” my mother answered the woman eagerly, her purse unzipped, bills on standby and in the ready position. The woman behind the counter looked back up at my mother, trying to get a fix on just whom she was dealing with. My mother turned away, annoyed, and dangled her cigarette precariously close to my face.
“Sebby, honey, listen to me now…always sit up front on the bus. Don’t talk to strange people and always make sure you get back on the bus before it leaves. Do you understand?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I answered her. She looked at me as if she wanted to say more, but I saw her face crumple up as if she didn’t really quite know what to say. She tensed up and tried to find relief by sucking hard on her filtered butt.
“Look, I know you probably don’t understand why you have to go stay with your grandparents, but everything’s different now.” The tone of her voice rose as if she believed what she was saying was the absolute truth. “Dick and I really need our space right now to be able to work things out. I wanted you to be there for the wedding in San Francisco, but having a babysitter to take care of you would just be too expensive.”
“We’ve n-n-never had a babysitter before,” I answered.
“Don’t talk back,” she chided, incensed. “And don’t stutter in front of me, either! It’s childish.” Her concern for me quickly vanished and returned to the frustrated annoyance that I was accustomed to. It was the same frustrated annoyance that had surfaced with the ticket lady.
“Look, I’ve tried to explain it to you, but I’m afraid you just don’t understand what a fragile time it is for Dick and me.” She looked over at him in the distance. He was fumbling with some loose change at the vending machines. “And I just don’t want to debate it with you. I have to do this if I expect anything between Dick and me to work out. I can’t expect him to want to raise another man’s child. It’s just not fair to him. Can’t you see?”
I just nodded. She was always like this. It seemed to me as if she cared more for momentary Dick than she did for her own son. It felt more natural to call her Charlotte than it ever did calling her mother. But I’d been through this before. If it were two years earlier, I probably would’ve buckled in half and broken out in tears. But I stopped crying when I kept finding myself crying alone. Anyhow, like all the others, it was doubtful he would last, marriage or no.
“And don’t forget to call me from Missouri as well. I would’ve wanted you to stay with
, but they said that they’re too busy this time of year, and it would be too difficult for them to look after you. The last place I wanted you to go was to your father’s parents. But since he left us cold and in the wind, they might as well help us out. It’s the least they could do.” Each time she spoke about my father, her face contracted like she had just eaten something rotten. She pulled some money from her purse and slipped it into my front shirt pocket. I watched her silently going through her performance of abandoning me as gracefully as possible, in the dark of night and on a cold and windy bus platform.
“Thirty-five dollars. It’s all I can spare. That should be more than enough to keep you fed for the next three and a half days. Don’t spend money on junk food or lend anything out. Do you hear me?”
“Oh, I hear you,” I answered, uninterested.
“Don’t talk to me with that tone, and answer me when I ask you direct questions,” she barked. “You’re just too damn quiet and too much to deal with.” All I could do was shrug and look away.
“Don’t forget to tell your sister that I love her. Every time I call your grandmother’s house, she’s always out.” I heard the words, but nothing sounded sincere. The last time she called was more than two months ago. Every one of her words registered flat and lifeless.
“I will,” I replied.
“She’s trying to keep Beanie away from me, and I don’t like it,” she scowled. She started checking her pockets for another cigarette. I could tell she was done talking. I had nothing to say to her anyway.
I knew that this was the moment when my mother was once again pawning me off to go live with relatives. It wasn’t the first time, and it probably wouldn’t be the last. I saw Dick standing on the curb smoking another quick cigarette and drinking a Coke. Maybe he knew to give my mother and me a few moments together, maybe he just didn’t want to be anywhere near me, which was typical. He didn’t like children and had made that fact abundantly clear. When I saw him approaching with my cases, he was beaming.