It was a half-day for me. The old man had to go to the firehouse, and since the last time He let me come there and we had to have a conversation about my access to the fire pole, it wound up better if I went to work with Rosalita. Well, that, and when Fireman Friendly came to McDade, I talked so much shit, I got in-school detention. My pops was cool. He dug me, and my weirdness, and my mind. He always read my stuff. Or I always read it to him, and he didn’t mind. He was cool like that. Digable Planets, Cool Like That. Haaaaa.
Rosalita didn’t play. She didn’t “fart around,” as we said in my family. She was swift with the hand. I got an ass-kicking a week. The way she saw it, if she beat me half-dead, at least she was saving half of my life from the things she knew intimately, which was guns, drugs, violence, and death, beginning in her own family, and extending to her life’s work, as a surgical nurse at Mount Sinai Hospital, near Chicago’s Maxwell Street, affectionately known as Jew Town, the scene of my next novel, The Tales of Elliot Caprice: Ace Boon Coon. I finished it before I hopped a plane to China to secure manufacturing and direct-to-consumer support from the place where they make everything, except room for foreigners, or at least easily, and not without much eating.
My mom went to work every day through the toughest part of the Black Belt, the place where Elliot makes his mark on the side of law and order as an assigned detective, first grade, as a member of the Chicago Police Department somewhere around 1947. My mama was born in 1947. She made her professional dreams come true in Maxwell Street, providing end of life care to the elderly through her subordinates in the Home Health Care Department, which was a civil service the hospital provided. I still remember the names of the patients I saw on Take This Lil Nigga To Work Day.
The Haydens, who were dying but going out together, freaky, bedridden, which they preferred, obvs. The one who I caught a glimpse of when my mom told me to leave the room. The medicated gauze for his bedsores. Taking the cap off the bottle for her, as he moaned. Mr. Shapiro, he of Shapiro’s Shoes. Nice Jewish cat. He had gallstones. It hurt him so much to walk. Rosalita USED to take me to him for school shopping every year. Buster Browns. Don’t front. Y’all know they were dope. The one who could see me. Who was Doc Shapiro, before either of us realized it. It was tough realizing the fella who sold you school shoes being struck in constant pain and never being able to walk right again. My mother was kind. She wasn’t nice.
My brother Wally’s favorite teacher was Miss A, which she shortened from Athanasoulias, which Ronnie made us practice in front of her, embarrassingly, when my brother got it wrong. Mama had taken us that one time Miss A mentioned her infirm mother, for whom she provided elder care by herself, was having a tough go. She was the truest school marm I had ever seen. A Greek, who chose young black folks for her charges. That’s back when dutiful teachers didn’t get married, like in the old movies with pretty, smiling white folks who don’t really seem true at all. She always busted Wally’s balls, Ma did. He reminded her of my dad, who left, hard core as fuck. We didn’t deserve that, but like that other old fart, Clint said, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”
Miss A taught us what family meant that night. We were spoiled, even being raised by violent Spartans who really shouldn’t have shared a locker in high school. Our mother took us to Miss A’s old mama’s house to show us what caring for the sick and infirm was like, so we’d know she was the bad bitch that paid for everything under the tree that year. I get my ego from my mother. I almost named this shit the Gardner Bee, feel me? I noticed how putting him on the spot hurt Wally. It hurt my feelings, too, but I practiced it, spoke the lines, did the dance, like the good little Lightskinned prodigy, just like she said to. I did everything Mama said. I was afraid of her.
She was my shadow side, manifest.
I had a different schedule than my brothers, who were in high school damned near before I wound up right behind them once I tested out of regular Chicago Public Schools in 2nd grade. John and Wally were much older than me, and had moved on from the things we once enjoyed together. All light skinned kid fun. Fighting Black Gangster Disciples. Resisting heroin. Getting into Mendel Catholic School parties. No more comic books.
No quick games of Dungeons and Dragons. No more reading books to them and acting out all the parts and the dialogue. No more mischief. ”If you coming with us to Games Galore at Evergreen Plaza, ay, don’t come up to me when I’m around the girls.” Hated girls, because I really loved girls, since birth. I’d take my kicks however I could, but it was usually in competition, constantly. My cousin Lillian, my foster sister Erika Diemer, all my west side wildcats from Louisiana like Yogi, and Tiki ‘nem who I crushed on, and we’re all from Louisiana, and Lightskinned, so we’re allowed to be a little weird, so mind y’all’s bidness.
Girls were no longer for wrasslin’, or slap-boxing (although the prettiest girls in the Chi always seemed like they could scrap.) I couldn’t follow the two Yellow Dukes around anymore, running behind them, shouting “Wait up,” or, once upon a time, “Pick me up. I’m tired.” And they did. And they loved me. I was little, was one of those SIDS-babies. My father was afraid I’d die in my sleep. He was tortured by the idea of me being trapped inside an incubator for weeks. I was extremely low birthweight. A few pounds, plus one extra ounce. My brother told me everyone figured I was dead once Mama pushed me out, but somehow it worked out and I got locked up the first time. Each night when he was home, John Gardner turned on the light when we were asleep. Then I didn’t share a room with John, and I figured he was checking on Wally, because he was always being bothered. Then Wally got to spend the night with his friends, and John Laymon got to be Beige Greg Brady, and I realized Pop was checking to see if I was still breathing, and those strange stares he, and Wally, gave me my whole life must’ve been “How is this little muthafuka sitting here?” I say all this to help the reader appreaciate how these wolves communicated with the tiny child who tested out of Chicago Public Schools before he was out of snow suits. The kind you could urinate inside, and no one would ever know.
Wally was literal, to a fault, and always warm and fuzzy. I think he talked me into sticking my finger in a light socket once. He’s lovely. Once, he told me, “No need to try to fool you, boy. Give you five seconds and you’ll have already fooled yourself.” I think I was 7. My nickname for him is Methuselah. When my son was being a bad prince a few months ago, his own Uncle Buster found him. I ain’t been worried, and, in fact, it’s a little creepy how gleeful I am the Brick Wall found him. Such lovely cosmic schadenfraude.
Shade-And-Fraud. Black pain. All up in the membrane.
Wally raised me along the last mile until I married my high school girlfriend, like my dad did, because he wasn’t around to kill me before I could. Pop talked WITH me, same as John Laymon III, who would sit in my room with me when I was forced to sit alone AFTER getting my hind parts terraformed by The Butterscotch Behemoth. Big Beige Magic. My pops looked like Ron O’Neal, way prior to Superfly, when he was showing white folks black men could Broadway with Ceremonies In Dark Old Men. John Laymon was everything the old man was, except unkind. My mama was the kind one. My dad was the good one. They needed each other. Boy, did they.
My mom, and Wally, didn’t talk to me. They spoke into me, and if it didn’t move me to immediate action, it was an immediate shove into the wall, or in her case, your collar in your jaw, with maybe three of her knuckles. El Rukns were raised in her house. Love taps. Little sweet nothings Chicago parents do for their little dodgers. The streets gonna kill you if I don’t. Ay, if Rosalita didn’t have anything to say, there was no conversation.
I remember the thing her and Wally would do to me when I was going on far too long: extend the pointer finger at me, then bring it to their own face and tap-tap-tap-tap against their pursed lips with that “Tiny beige boy, can you not see I’m not tryin’ to hear this shit??” look. I did it to my daughters and ex-wife once. They laugh at me still. You had to be born to do it. You need the face for it. It’s hilarity, until it haunts your fears of failure. I see that shit every time Renee Pickup calls me and starts the conversation with, “Danny,—“ I’m saying, the face of the devil in my mind is some red, horned dude with a fresh fade and THAT FUCKING FACE. Wearing Girbaud Jeans, because I’m black, from Chicago, and I, too, partied in the parking lot at the White Castle on Stony Island.
I certainly didn’t get to say much to her on-duty that day. It was hot, and Chicago doesn’t care if its poor and infirm die in their own apartments when it’s 101 and humid. I had to help her. I wanted to. I felt heroic. I got to help my pops, Old Yeller, on his eight jobs (especially roofing, the Gardner family side hustle. He let me think I was helping. I usually wound up doing my homework in the truck.) Mama needed me! AIGHT! I changed the pans. I helped folks sit in bathtubs, helped my mom cut gauze. I looked at old man dicks, and old women tittays. It was fascinating. It was an opportunity. Maybe she’d not frighten me so much.
Both my John Laymons, Junior, and the Third, like Lupin, they dug me. Appreciated my personality. I could fuck up, left and right, and all I got was love and instruction, until I got a slap to the floor. Mama? Wally? They didn’t break on you on the outside. They hit you from within. They checked your homework, after it was graded. They told you that you were being stupid. They hit you up front, before you fucked up, so you didn’t. I didn’t understand that until I was all badass two weeks ago in Hong Kong, making deals, strutting through protests, like I ain’t black, and a nigger back in America. “You want to die, don’t you.” I heard him say it. “What are you doing all this for, Danny?” My mind, Wally’s voice. Same tone.
“I don’t know, Danny. You’re going to do this comedy thing. I figured you’d be a doctor, or a lawyer.”
That was her. Same tone. Russell Simmons called. I went. She died. Nothing was funny anymore.
I did all that shit that day, y’all. I helped my Old G, and I could brag the next day at school I was a nurse like my mama for a day. My fine-ass mama, who was wild, and tough, and hilarious. We went to the snack shop around the corner. It had a lunch counter. She said I could get grilled cheese. Everyone knew her in there. My Uncle Leonard, my muthafukin’ Uncle Chee Chee, that dope nigga who helped raise me, came over to sit with us. I was the smart kid in the fam. Ronnie Gant from Harlan High bragged on her baby, the whole lunch. Then her mean ass went to pay the bill. She went into her purse for her money, couldn’t find it, and emptied it out on the counter. Ain’t nobody gonna fuck with Ricardo Gant’s big sister, not in the Black Belt. Just dumped her shit all out.
Out came her cigarettes. Out came her own pill case because physician, heal thyself. Out came Izzy Rabinowitz’s gun, which was my Rosalita’s .32, taped handle, scratched off serial. Found her money, paid the bill, put all that shit back in. Pfft. “Your daddy’s coming home.”
We were at the Road Runner snack shop on 95th and Halsted, northeast corner, where they sold chump fireworks like Snapping Pops, and sparklers, the shit our father wouldn’t let us have because he was the guy finding the fingers when someone’s mother in the neighborhood let some dumb Li’l Negro have a pack of M80s.
I finally found the courage.
“Ma,” I said.
“What, Danny.” She was out of fucks for the day.
“Do I have a gun in my purse?”
I nodded. She was scary again.
“Because I have medicine in my other bag, and I promised your father I’d come home for dinner.”
We got to the crib. John, and Wally were home. No girls would be around, because our pops would kill us, dead as we wanted to be, if we brought him a baby, a disease, or a rape charge. The old man was in the backyard with the Weber. Aw, shit. I looked at my mama sit on my pop’s lap in the backyard while my brothers played catch. I had a How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way in my lap. She’d have shot a muthafuka to care for her patients. She’d have killed someone to make it to that barbecue. I didn’t realize I’d never considered she was packing to protect me. I’d have never thought she carried it to protect herself. Not until I wanted to share this story, rather than type angry things about ungrateful folks, which I had in my heart to do, until Renee texted me and said, “You can’t,” and I listened to her, because she reminds me of Rosalita.
I remember this day like the day I realized I’ve been lied to about China my entire life, and they black as fuck over there. Shit made me wish I could tell my mean-ass older brother thank you for making me learn the meaning of his middle name, Ernest. Earnest. Walter Earnest.
Or Frank Fuquay. Take your pick. It doesn’t matter. He probably won’t read this. I heard he read A NEGRO AND AN OFAY. Now I know who gave me the one-star review on Goodreads. Hahahahaha.
I miss my mother. My brothers were pretty cool. They black in China, too. The mayor is in.