By: Antwan Crump
I knew the moment that Momma snorted that first bump of cocaine off the dresser, she’d be gone. A couple kisses on the forehead, for my sister and I, then she’d shimmy out the door in her red sequin dress. Momma loved that dress -when she could fit in it.
I’d often have jealous thoughts of what other children may have had instead. Two parents. A yard, maybe with a dog. Food. Stability. The worst of the thoughts, were the ones I had of death. I was nine. Envious that most kids would only have to suffer through their mother’s death once. I had to watch it five days a week. Six, if she came home on Saturdays.
Her free time was consumed by consumption. Whether she was consumed by her substance abuse or the lovers that she’d frequented -I’m too bashful to willingly recall. But, I recall the sickness. I remember the pain. In my most emotional moments, I can still smell the vomit.
She feared retribution enough to keep her nose clean on Sundays. Though that didn’t mean much for her liver. Amidst the sweat and outbursts once a week, she had actually tried to be a good mother. We went to church often. Usually, we were lucky enough to go with Grandma. She wasn’t one for drugs or alcohol. Instead, she filled that gap in her spirit, with God.
We’d get dropped off in the front of the church. Likely by my mother’s ‘main squeeze’ of the moment. They always smoked in the car. My sister and I would do our best, to air out a little, before we put ourselves around the parishioners. It never helped much. We tried our best anyway.
It’s odd how many people see two kids trying to kick off the smell of Newport cigarettes, and think it’s adorable. Similarly strange how many of them are willing to give an innocent old woman dirty looks because of it. I suppose they didn’t know. I always resented them for never asking why we smelled that way.
The preacher’s gospel was generally interchangeable. Most were lessons akin to ‘things higher than self’ and ‘the power of forgiveness’. I don’t know who he thinks he was fooling with his stock lectures.
Then again, people didn’t just go there for God. Hell, people barely attended for fear of Satan. They came to church to show everyone what they had, to flaunt their self-importance, and maybe break a commandment or three.
From the cleaned up Cadillacs to the sacrilegious low cut neckline dress -that was see through in the ‘right light’-, to the too thin church pants with an exaggerated inseam. It was a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah with all the fixin’s; less the fire and brimstone.
A good preacher would’ve commented, but he may have been too busy admiring -concerned with the potential going’s on of what lay beneath his own inseam. The judgment was usually left to the good old ladies of the choir. A redeeming factor -if there ever was one.
The church itself was old. Mid-size. Big windows. Three ceiling fans – though only one worked. And, some of the most uncomfortable pews you’d ever have the misfortune of sitting it. Old and worn from overuse, and under care. ‘Wilting, withering, and splintered’.
The three of us may have absconded, were we not true-believers. A run-down church is still a chapel and the word of God -still holy- no matter how prolific a libido it’s messenger has. We prayed along and kept to ourselves whenever things got out of hand.
Post-sermon was always a bit of a show. After the weekly penance, most of the parishioners would do their best to hurry and get back to ‘business as usual’ right outside. A lot of it was flirting, gossip, and the occasional exchange of unsavory things.
“Don’t say nothing in the bible bout’ grass!”.
Yes, it does -First of Peter. Verse five. Chapter eight. They’d have known if they listened. They also didn’t have to worry about a seventy-year-old woman beating them senseless if they didn’t. Needless to say, we were well behaved when in Grandma’s company.
We’d wait for Momma to pick us up outside, while everyone congregated. Grandma was stern. A quiet woman, but a force of nature nonetheless. She was respected throughout the church for her generosity. Though her children could have done better for her reputation; she made up for their embarrassments in the form of donations and vindictive stares. People appreciate a maternal figure.
As my sister and I would stand beside her, in our hand me down dress-clothes, she’d glance around looking for the first car she saw swerving too much on the steady Sunday afternoon roads. She knew Momma would be in that car. Worse yet, she knew who’d be driving- “The sugar-daddy”. Momma’s knight in balding armor. Grandma’s worst nightmare.
The car would always approach the same. Speeding down the far side of the street, until the inevitable moment that Grandma’s silk-white Sunday-dress caught its’ attention. It would make a sharp turn through the left lanes, and pull to the curb -yards ahead of where we’d been standing. Momma, would exit the vehicle in the same red sequin dress from Friday, flip her hair back, and call to us, in the most innocent voice she could muster, “Babies!”- waving one hand high.
At that point, my sister would cry, and beg to stay with Grandma. Momma didn’t like that too much. Kia had the cigarette burns on her right shoulder to prove just how much Momma didn’t like it. I guess she thought the public display of protest made her look like an unfit parent. I avoided disagreements. I knew what they’d get me.
We’d say our goodbyes, and get in the car as instructed, normally without further incident. This was the worst part of the week. We’d have to turn our heads whenever the car stopped so Momma and the man could sniff the dashboard.
My last memory of Grandma is of her blowing kisses to us as we pulled away. That, and the unfortunate conversation that came with it.
“Damn. Grandma ain’t looking too hot kids. I hope you said bye.”
We held her funeral there. Open casket. It may have been the first time that I saw Grandma fully at peace. I stayed away from the grievers. They’re never good for much else, then reminding you of what you lost.
The pastor did his best to console Momma. He’d even gone so far as to tone down his opportunistic flirtation, but counsel didn’t help much. She was broken. We watched her from the front pew of the church, as she delivered the eulogy through her tears. It was moving, yet calculated. More a reasonably biased critique on the life lost, rather than optimistic words for a final departure. That’s what her momma had taught her to do.
All in all, it was a pretty somber service. My sister and I sat quiet, whilst the adults made the day about themselves. Relatives chatted, ‘not so silently’, about their plans for what remained of Grandma’s savings.
I believe I’ve gotten a few cousins out of the deal -thanks to foolish girls, who hoped to be included in this one woman tontine, via a direct sperm donor. The men in my family were more than happy to oblige. Money can do wonders for the libido; even more so for the ego. However, from experience, it tends to do the best work when quelling the pains of a broken heart -if only for a time.
Momma was chosen to divide the funds between the family.
She did as instructed.
Keeping with my habit of paying no mind, I’m not quite sure exactly who got what, or how much. I saw a lot of family around that time. Some faces I’d recognized, many that swore they’d recognized mine. I was trusting enough, once Momma let them in the house, and went about my day.
Over the course of a few weeks, the mourners turned into well wishers. Well-wishers, into beggars. The final phase of that evolution being the inevitable condemners. We were royalty on that street for a moment.
Before we knew it, we’d become the outsiders. Too bourgeois for the neighbors, not bourgeoisie enough to leave the neighborhood. I’d handled the pressures and bullying as mild as the situation would allow. My sister operated in kind. Momma continued to light her nose up like a Christmas tree.
We stopped going to church.
The trouble didn’t really start until Momma’s boyfriend moved in. Transitioning from seeing that smokey red car only a few times a week to every morning when the sun rose, was a trying adjustment to make. I didn’t feel any particular need to react until Momma went and bought him a newer model.
That old beat down vehicle sat on our front lawn for what seemed like an eternity. I’d gotten into the habit of leaving little knicks on its side with my house key on bitter days. They caught me a few times, but it was well worth the beatings.
Moss’s presence in the home was unsettling to Kia, as well. His subtle comments and groans made her uncomfortable. She would do her best to avoid being alone with him. Most days, there was little that she could do about it.
She started failing tests on purpose -hoping the teacher would keep her after class. When they de-funded the afterschool programs, that tactic was no longer an option. She’d tried mixing in with the bad kids at one point. I think a few worse encounters ended that plan too.
Kia never liked to divulge much to me. I guess she thought I was too ‘soft’ to handle the facts of her reality. She froze me out. But, I still saw enough to put pieces together.
Once she realized that she’d be stuck at home with him, she began to arm herself with a potato peeler. It was less threatening than a knife -but Momma never peeled potatoes- so she knew it wouldn’t be missed.
Moss would patrol the house like a rabid dog. While Momma was off in the world. He’d often send me to my room to do homework, while he tended to Kia. The two would spend hours out of earshot. I would pace around, trying to drown out whatever screams I’d heard, by reading bible passages as loud as I could. I figured that -should the worst happen- at least God would know that I’d been calling out for him.
On the day that she ran away, he barrelled into my room during one of my ‘private services’, backhanded me in the mouth, and demanded I tell him where she’d run off too. I lied, for fear of not having an answer.
We drove around town searching, only to find her sitting on our cement stoop some hours later, accompanied by a police officer. The cries that she let out when they relinquished her back to him haunt me to this moment.
She stabbed him with her potato peeler several dozen times that night. It didn’t kill him, but it scarred him up pretty good. All things considered, it may have been a blessing in disguise. My mother sent my sister away to school, after a spell in a mental illness facility. And Moss learned some much-needed manners.
We weren’t going to church, but I kept doing my sermons. Momma grew suspicious of me always preaching to no one. I think pride kept her from checking me into the loony bin as well. People can forgive one problem child. Two crazy kids just look like bad parenting. She distanced herself from me, inadvertently leading to Moss becoming my primary caretaker.
“Boy, why don’t you call me daddy?” – the infamous words that would begin his warped tutelage.
“Because, you’re not my daddy, Sir.” – I’d answer.
“Well, call me something else boy. I’m tired of being called ‘Sir’, in my own damn house.”
I called him by his surname. It was meant to be demeaning. Children ought not to call a parent by their legal name. He didn’t seem to mind it too much. It reminded him of the time he spent in the military. Six months of basic training, to be exact. But, he wore the name with pride, and I would snide to myself whenever he’d tell his, “war-stories”.
I didn’t have many friends. I spent most of my days back and forth from school. If I’d been unlucky enough that day, he’d tour me around the ghettos, and teach me what he dubbed, ‘the ropes’. It was around this time that I realized what he did for money, and what he did with his time, once he was paid.
As it turned out, he had a few other families. One for each of the last three decades of his existence. He was strict about dividing his attention.
I don’t like to think that we got close, but I’m certain that I became a mentee of sorts. Whenever the mood would strike him, he’d pull me out of the King James, and lecture me about what it is that a man is supposed to be.
He’d always assured me that he’d never done anything to my sister if I ever I pulled away from him. I didn’t like that conversation, so I entertained his verbal manifesto.
It was obvious that he wanted to bond. For him, the solution to our division was forced connection. He promised me that if I came with him during his weekly excursions -to ‘learn a thing or two’ – that he’d let me start going back to church on Sundays.
I did what Jesus would have done. I took the nails with the promise.
During the first half of the week – while Momma was at work, we’d head downtown to visit his oldest. It was hard to tell that they were father and son at first glance. They looked more like brothers. But, the clamor for Moss’s attention -gave Junior away rather quickly. I’d sit right there in the passenger seat, and watch them agree with each other, like two ‘old biddies’ at Sunday dinner.
His son was a spitting image of him. Maybe a little thinner, a little more eccentric. Other than that, the two were identical. They’d go on for hours about “the hustle”, “the game”, “crazy bitches”, and a bunch of other things I’m still embarrassed to talk about.
Junior was noticeably kinder. From our first encounter, he was adamant about being my ‘big brother’. Going so far, as to request that I be left with him for a day or two. Moss only allowed it, on the first and fifteenth, when Junior got money. I got out of it whenever I could.
The other days were divided between Momma and Moss’s ex-wife, Ginger. It was one of those strange arrangements, where they hadn’t been married in the ‘traditional sense’, but they’d had a few kids together – so it was called a marriage.
He was more liberal with how much time he would allow me to spend with Ginger’s kids. They were only a few years older than me, so he’d often leave me in their company, while he “handled business” with Ginger in the bedroom.
Leann took an odd liking to me after my first few visits. I’m not quite sure what it was. I think it may have been the bible verses. While her brothers crept up the balcony to smoke and jive about tons of nothing, she would sit in the living room with me, begging for me to tell her more about Noah’s arc, or Job and the giant whale. I always obliged. There was never much else to do.
At the end of the week, our adventures would round out with Momma. We’d engage in some menial family activity, to keep up the appearance of happiness. Moss would drink beer and entice us with stories of his youth. Momma would sneak off every half hour or so to “powder her nose”. More often than not, our evenings were cut short by accusations that he was cheating. His rebuttal would consist of her drug use and poor parenting.
We’d be home within an hour of Momma’s inevitable public breakdown.
Sunday’s were once again the Lord’s day. Despite the tirade of questioning that I had to endure, I was thrilled to be back. The preacher was still as promiscuous as ever. The members all still chatty and dressed in their best. The ne’er do wells still smelled like pine cone smoke and remnants of the liquor that they’d drank the previous night.
Onlookers -of course- commented on the strong scent of stale cigarettes that emanated off of my suit -which I had by then noticeably outgrown. I didn’t care too much for the opinions of the pulpit admirers. I just wanted to feel like I did back when I used to come with Grandma. Safe, protected, and in arm’s reach of God.
The sermon this day was particularly moving. The Book of Genesis was always my favorite. I was fascinated by the imagery, the beauty, and the power of God. Of a place made just for us, where everything was perfect, and the mountains teemed with purity. I wanted, so badly to be there. To frolic with my loved ones forever.
According to Pastor Williams, the good folk of New West Amman Baptist Church would have to wait until the afterlife for such satisfaction. That didn’t mean I wasn’t allowed to picture it, and so I did. As he stepped down from the microphone stand and proclaimed the truth of our being, I closed my eyes and prayed that his voice would connect me to God.
In my mind it did. I swayed back and forth, with pictures of the endless greenery, and sparkling waters streaming as far as the eye could see. I’d hoped it was heaven. I’d hoped to be there. I knew that Grandma was there -likely holding her house robe closed, with one hand, waiting for me at the gates. Momma always said, “she’d be the only one in heaven, worried about us on earth”.
Pastor Williams came to my pew and let out a loud holler, “And if God could see any of us to this promised land. To Eden! Should we be so deserving, he will!” , I leapt up with excitement as the rest of the church cheered and raved at the Pastor’s testimony. Once again I felt the true power of the spirit, as an unrelenting peace washed over me.
I couldn’t wait to get home and share the wonders of Eden with Momma. To give her the news about what felt like my personal selection amongst the worthy of the congregation.
After the mass, I waited outside and sought out Moss’s poorly driven red car. Passerby’s offered me rides, one after the other, but as forgetful as Moss could be, he was pretty punctual about the “post-church pickup”. I turned them down and assured them he was coming. Pastor Williams and his wife were kind enough to wait with me on the curb.
“So how’ve things been at home?”, the Pastor asked, to distract me from my anticipation. I shuttered at the thought of telling him the truth, but liars don’t go to heaven, so I did the next best thing.
“Well, that’s good to hear young man. We’ve missed you around these parts.”
I’m guessing that he sensed my hesitance and left well enough, alone. His wife suggested they drive me home. I worried about getting in trouble for it, but I’d have done anything to avoid the coming rain. They laid down some plastic for me to sit on, cracked the back windows, and invited me into their modest car. Pastor quit smoking before I was born. His wife just hated the smell. It was a noble gesture.
As we pulled up to the house, we saw Moss arguing with another man in the middle of the street. His car had been rear-ended, as he’d been pulling out to come and get me. This would have made me feel better if I didn’t know about the gun that Moss had kept in his glove compartment.
Judging by the audience, this had been going on for some time. Moss didn’t seem to care about the impending trouble. Pastor Williams ordered his wife and me to stay in the car, while he tried to quell the situation.
He may have lasted a minute or two before the offending driver swung at him. As Pastor laid knocked out on the floor, his wife shrieked. I looked on, terrified and humiliated. Moss walked to the passenger side of his car, yelling threats. He reached into his glove compartment and pulled out his gun while flashing his badge.
The offending driver threw his hands up. Moss rushed to put the badge in his back pocket, and screamed at the driver to, “Get the hell out of here!”. The driver got in his car, and exiled himself from the road as fast as he could, with the bumpers dragging against the street.
Moss helped Pastor Williams to his feet, suggesting he leave as well.
I got out of the car and ran inside, thanking the dazed Pastor as I passed him.
Momma was inside -high as always- and frantically cleaning. She only cleaned when she felt guilty. Moss referred to it as, “Macbeth Syndrome”-she must have been the cause of the commotion. I knew better than to try to comfort her. Instead, I resigned to my room, forcing myself to sleep, amidst the sounds of moving furniture, and Moss’s building rage.
The next morning, I was told to pack, as I would be staying with Aunt Ginger that week.
Moss and I arrived there Monday evening. Ginger greeted me with a big hug, a smile, and a promise to take ‘good care’ of me. I wasn’t too worried. I’d known Ginger to be a kind person -whenever Moss didn’t piss her off- and I would still be able to make it to church on Sunday.
At least, that was our deal.
The house was well kept. From the few visits that I’d made to Ginger’s, it’d seemed that things would run awry more often than not. Turns out, chaos was only the case when Moss was around. With him gone, things ran rather smooth. There were some expected wild times, but in her presence, the kids were straighter than a ruler with an iron on it.
I was given a place in the boys’ room. Moss had been kind enough to buy me a cot. I set it up at the foot of the three beds. It wasn’t long before I lost that privilege. Being the runt of the bunch I was fine resting my head next to the heater. After Kia left, company had become a rarity, so I dared not complain.
During -what would become- our nightly tutorials, Juan -Ginger’s youngest, and I would listen with fascination, as the two older brothers chatted from their “cool beds” about girls. We learned about the body of women, their scents, their desires, and the magic of their insecurities.
Needless to say, whenever talk of ‘ass and pussy’, came up we couldn’t help but chuckle. “You’ll see one day.” they’d chide ignoring our nervous outbursts, and continuing to demonstrate on their pillows.
I was welcomed as one could be, in a house full of strangers. We played card games and such during the boring times. Ginger would entertain Leann. It seemed most of their ‘fun’ came in the form of wife preparation and child care.
Leann and I had some interesting encounters as well – though the family seemed intent on keeping us apart. Despite the semi-segregation, she would find time to steal me away, so that I could tell her about the Bible. I gave in at every opportune chance. Spreading the word of God is important. I also needed a friend.
I found myself embellishing a bit, as I would watch her eyes widen with every fantastic addition. I was sure that God could forgive a little exaggeration, in exchange for another loyal follower knocking humbly at his blessed door.
The week had come and gone, and Sunday morning, as promised – we made our way to church. I should have been more suspect that Moss hadn’t shown up to take us – but I was too excited to show Leann what all my fuss had been about.
The taxi arrived as the sun began to show it’s face. We lapped up and veered off in -what only took about a second for me to realize – was the wrong direction.
“Ms. Ginger. Ms. Ginger!” – I cried as the taxi turned onto the expressway, “I think we’re going the wrong way.”
“No, mijo. We’re going to my church.”
They were Catholic. It was a minor issue. I kept my mouth shut and convinced myself that it would be alright, so long as God were there.
Mostly to judge them.
Our Lady of the Lakes. The name was peculiar. I was uneasy at first. That was until I saw the well-dressed members, chatting and joking, the clean cars, and the faint smell of liquor escaping the pores of the attendees. This was definitely the right audience, which meant that this had to be the right place.
Catholics are a queer lot of people. They’re normal at a glance, but once they enter their church they become a different entity altogether. From people into autonomous mannequins. The transformation is swift. It may have something to do with that water they insist upon sprinkling themselves with. I joined, of course. Far be it from me tell another person how best to get to God. As long as they got there.
We sat in pews similar to West Amman’s. Similar in their placement, that is. They were far more comfortable and offset by these lovely footrests. Ginger snapped her fingers at me, to inform me I’d been doing something wrong. So, I took my shoes off and replaced them on the velvety floor shelf. She flicked my ear and I placed my feet back on the floor. I hated this place already
The mass started strangely. An old woman behind -what looked like a piano- hit the keys, beginning a blistering horn sound. The crowd stood at attendance, I followed and prayed in unison. This part, I was used to.
A man, dressed in white, walked down the aisles of the church, singing the prayer, as we all shifted from monotone speech, into a warped hymn. He nodded and blessed us all, as he made his way to the lectern, and ordered us to sit.
Then he began, what I can only describe as the most passive rant about sinners that I’d ever heard. His speech segwayed abruptly in and out of – what I assumed was Spanish- then back to English, and Spanish again. It was maddening.
They must have sensed my discomfort. He did his best to deliver the rest of his sermon in a calmed tone, though he still had moments of vocal lapse, into what I’d later tell Pastor Williams, was gibberish. I tried to be polite. His pleasant damnation of us all made me squirm. This isn’t God’s word, I thought as I withheld my irritation.
I suffered through about half of the mass before I could no longer take the sacrilege, and excused myself. Ginger ran a tight ship, but she’d been distracted enough that I was able to sneak away to the bathroom – during one of their up and downs.
I locked the door behind me, ran into the stall, and screamed into my hands – praying that God would deliver me from this place. After a few minutes of this, and a piss out of anger, my tantrum was interrupted by a knock on the door. I did what I could to pull myself together, and answered – hoping that it’d be Jesus to tell me that he’d smitten the blasphemers.
“Curtis, are you okay?” – Leann asked as I looked on with watered eyes and clenched fists.
“I don’t belong here. This is wrong.”
She looked around to make sure that no one had been watching, rushed into the bathroom, and locked the door behind her.
“Tell me.” – she said, with affectionate curiosity. I rambled on, for what felt like hours, about how mass was supposed to be, much to her entertainment. “Well, what does it matter, as long as they think that it’s the right way?”
The thought had never even dawned on me. As I stood embarrassed by my behavior, she giggled and assured me that it would be okay. I reached out to unlock the door, and she slapped my hand away. “If we go out now, we’ll get in trouble,” she said.
“Then when do we leave?”
“When they take bread and wine. Kids aren’t allowed to have any. Wait until you hear Ave Maria, and we can get back to the seats before Mom notices.”
There we sat. Playing thumb-war, waiting for a room full of grown-ups to do a sing-along. When we tired of that, I told her the story of Adam and Eve, and she taught me the lyrics to Ave Maria.
We got back before we were missed.
I enjoyed the remainder of the mass. Mostly because Leann and I made goo-goo eyes at each other for the rest of the time. Some of the other kids didn’t like that too much. The priest said his final prayer and dismissed the room. Leann’s brothers led us out, while Ginger stayed back to converse with the choir. It seemed she hadn’t been there in a while.
We met up with a group of kids in the parking lot. They knew Juan and the boys pretty well, so I trusted their company. We wandered off to a little lake behind the church and tossed rocks into it.
“Hey Juan, did you see little man over there sneak into the bathroom with your sister?” – those words would be the opening act, for the first real ass whooping of my life. Juan was indifferent toward me most of the time. I don’t believe he hated me, he just had to make a point. I turned the other cheek and took my beating like Saint Valentine.
Leann watched in horror, as Juan did his best to kick as many of my teeth out as possible. Moss ran up, before he killed me, and threw him off. I stand by the idea that the beating Moss gave Juan was infinitely worse than the one I’d gotten. Then again, I wasn’t conscious long enough to see it.
I woke up back at Momma’s, with cold steaks taped to my face.
“Yea. My boy can kick alright.” – Moss joked, relieved that I’d woken up at all, “It’s that Spanish in him. All that damn soccer. Odelay!”.
It took a few minutes for me to realize where we were. I tried to steady my head, but the constant pounding made it feel like I was still getting pummeled. The room couldn’t decide on a consistent presentation – dimmed, lit, blurry, clear; at one point I just stopped caring. It all hurt the same.
I ripped the steaks from my face. Remembering what had happened, my eyes welled. “Boy, I swear to Christ, if I see one tear on your face, I’ll whip you worse than that.” I sucked it up, knowing that there’d be no one to throw Moss off of me. I grit my teeth and went to the kitchen to get some water.
“When you’re done in there, come back over here. We gotta talk” – Moss said, and I slowed down to avoid the imminent lecture.
“Sit down, before you fall down, son.”. He never called me son, this was a bad sign.
“I ain’t one to mince words about important information. Nor, am I the best at givin’ it. So, I’ m gonna’ say this one time, and afterward, you can go and run off and do what you need to do. Just remember that there are no time machines. All we do is move forward. Got it?”
“Got it, Sir.”
“Momma and I went up to St. Mary’s the other day to check up on your sister.”
“How is she?”
“She was fine. A bit distraught. After we left, she threw a bit of a tantrum. Snuck into a nun’s room and found herself some pills. Took a bottle. She’s gone son.”
Kia just wanted to be free. She may have been the best person that ever lived if given the time. God is insecure in nature. He tests the faith of his flock -as a shepherd does- to ensure the fear of him still exists. This was my test. It took a while for me to come to terms with that.
The funeral ate up the little of Momma’s inheritance that remained. We held the service at Grandma’s old church. It’d been four years, since the last time Kia had been in attendance during one of Pastor William’s rants. They made a special exception for her departure, despite declaring her lapsed.
Momma had a discomforting sanity about her. Moss claimed that he’d been making her go to meetings. I’m not sure of how true that was. It may have just been a moment of clarity. There are very few things that can distract a mother from the pain of losing a child. She didn’t speak much to anyone other than the Pastor. She preferred to stare at the casket.
Moss was nice enough to bring the kids. They didn’t know Momma well, but they’d met Kia a few times. I guess he felt they deserved to pay their respects. I was happy to have them there, mainly for Leann. She sat in the front with me, while the service went on. Momma did her best not to lose her mind as she prayed beside Kia’s body. I was less able to do so. I don’t think Leann thought any worse of me for walking out.
I tiptoed, to the back of the church, and took the emergency exit on the side -where they kept a garden. I made my way to the plot in the back, where Kia and I used to plant tomatoes with Grandma every spring. A single vine had sprouted. I don’t know what it was about wiping some dirt off of one of the leaves, but it made me crumble. There I cried, curled in the dirt, hugging a branch, and begging God to take the pain away. It hurt too much.
I didn’t hear Leann walking behind me. To this day, even the sane part of me believes that God may’ve just placed her there as his answer to my prayers. Her eyes pulsed – puffy and red from rubbing away the tears. She helped me up from the wet soil, brushed me off, and held me in her arms. I let it all go.
Moss had left the church to retrieve us, as the well-wishers made their way to the parking lot. He stood by the door, watching as his daughter and I comforted each other. His scowl broke. It was satisfying to see him be human.
Moss returned inside without so much as a threat. I dug my head into Leann’s shoulder while she hummed Ave Maria.
I was recluse after my sister’s death. Preferring to read alone, instead of doing what most kids my age were up to. Momma had her own way of dealing with the pain. No matter the years of active using and close calls, Moss had finally grown tired of Momma’s nonsense, when his own money started to go missing. He had her sent off to a program.
A good son would have been worried. Especially, after what happened to Kia, but -and God forgive me for this- at the time, I didn’t care much for what happened to Momma. I’d been waiting for her funeral every day of my life. Heaven didn’t want her around either.
The men in white suits drove up to the house and retrieved her while she was in one of her classic, coke induced commas. In my mind, her limp body was a corpse. I said my prayers and returned to the books. Moss would serve as my legal guardian until Momma returned. We shared a forced enthusiasm at the prospect of temporary peace.
“You ride with me today, Sunday you can go to church.” – that was always his bargain, and I, the powerless, God-fearing man, was no match for manipulation. Again. I would be duped into riding with Moss on his daily excursions. On the bright side, by sixteen, I’d still never taken the bus.
By this time, rides with Moss had evolved into something else altogether. We didn’t stop as much as we used to. Instead, he was fond of taking his now, almost eight-year-old car, on the highway and preaching his truth while he balanced a cigarette in his hand, against the wind.
“Boy! You think you grown.”,
– and thus began the manifesto of a sixty-year-old man who sagged his pants.
“Lemme’ tell you somethin’. There is no, ‘Hi-ya, Pow-wah’, if you ain’t got three things.
One. A commitment to being better than anybody and everybody. Two. A constant promise to fulfill that commitment. And three, an unequaled willingness to defend it. You have that, you have the world.”
– he must have meant business. Whenever he was serious, he would let the ash of whatever he was smoking burn down to the filter. I hated these conversations. I knew they were wrong, but I couldn’t help but see the seed of truth in them. Conflict is an express ticket to hell and I was in the front seat.
With each day I was inundated with more chapters from what’d I’d later dub Moss Theory. I was meaner, angrier, and more determined than I’d ever felt myself be. No matter all my effort to fight it, I’d been becoming a man -as Moss saw fit.
“Now, let me tell ya’ bout the ladies.”
I had nowhere else to get the information.
“You get what you can, when you can, how you can. No exception. Life’s too short for indecision. You hear me?”
The ash flew from the edge of his cigarette out of the sunroof. As I watched, them flee from the edge of his conversation – I similarly drifted and thought of Leann. I would miss her most.
“Remember those three rules, Curtis. You apply those to everything, and you’ll see all the good and gifts that life has for you. Then, you go to church and thank God for that!”
I thanked God for making this an easy decision.
Momma would return from treatment claiming to have ‘turned a new leaf”. She’d keep her nose clean for a few weeks. Return to work. Start doing the things that she thought a mother ought to be doing. By then it was more for her, than for me or Moss. We appreciated her effort, knowing what would come.
At the first sign of trouble, Momma would fall back on to what she truly loved. As of late, she’s been swapping cocaine, for alcohol. She transformed from a drugged debutante to a pudgy ghost- who haunts the home with tales of days when she was beautiful. It’s a fitting a hell for her sins.
“I could have been a Supreme” – she mumbled in her deepest stupor, “Primed! Fine! And So Divine!”
-I never had the heart to tell her otherwise.
When I caught her that way, it meant that Moss had exiled her to the couch for the night. I’d keep her company, and listen to her stories. I lost plenty nights of rest, making sure that she slept on her side, and the other half -contemplating if it’d be considered mercy to let her drown in her own vomit.
I’d be lying if I said that I wouldn’t have been overjoyed to be rid of her. But Christians don’t let Christians die if they could help it. Addict or not, it was the right thing to do. I just didn’t know how long I could be there before my opinion on that would change.
“They took Kia from me.”
“No Momma. Kia’s gone.”
“Where’d she go?”
“She’s with God, Momma.”
Every day she’d fake it, blaming the school or whatever else came to mind. I knew that Momma blamed herself. Most days, I’d blame her too. Regret is a poison that kills slow and absolute. Her suffering was out of my power. The most that I could ever do, was keep her alive to face it.
“Come on Momma. Drink some water and sleep.”
“You’re a good son.”
I prayed that the Lord would watch over her, and packed a bag.
At this age, I wouldn’t consider myself a runaway. A coward, maybe. I’ve lost enough. I’m not sure what awaits me out there on the countryside. I shudder to think it could be anything worse than what I’m leaving behind. I wrote a note for Momma -for whenever she happened upon a moment of clarity-
I know that you’ve done all you could for me. I wish there were some was
some other way that this could happen. I wish a lot of things didn’t happen.
I just hope that you know, I don’t blame you. I don’t blame Moss, and
I don’t blame our circumstances.
I love you with all my heart. It’s because of that love,
that I can no longer bear to watch you suffer. It’s selfish.
I was raised better, I know. But, I just don’t know what else to do.
I hear there’s some work up North.
I’m heading there with Juan. Moss promised to send us with some
money. That should hold us over until we can get on our feet.
I know he’ll look after you.
I hope that you can find your way back to the church. I’ve asked some of
the members to keep an eye out for you in the coming weeks. They seem
excited to have you back.
If you’re reading this, it at least means that you’ve thought about it. Please
trust that feeling. I hope to see you again, either here, or in heaven.
I put it in her bible.
I stood out on the front porch for a bit. I watched the sun rise. I prayed for the souls of all those who’d passed. I prayed for all those who’d live. I thanked him for everything he’d given me. I apologized for lying to Momma.
Lastly, I prayed that old red car would make it out of Florida.