NEIGHBORHOOD OF MEAN
My neighborhood was mean. I knew that before anyone ever told me. All I had to do was step outside and see the trash on empty lots, abandoned cars, and blocks of empty houses and feel its meanness rushing at me like a angry dog. This was a neighborhood that had seen better times but those better times were gone and anyone who could leave was leaving. I didn’t want to leave tho’ I loved my neighborhood. It was the only place I had ever known and despite my neighborhood’s mean points, I wanted to stay right where I was with my Gram and my cousin, Suzy.
My Gram said our neighborhood had turned mean because the factories were closing down and a lot of people were put out of work and had nothing to do but make trouble. Gram was right about that cause everywhere me and Suzy went we saw men sitting on the steps of factories where they used to work smoking cigarettes, and cussing. As a matter of fact, when me and Suzy bummed school we sat with them and took puffs from their cigarettes. The men took great pleasure in teaching us to cuss like truck drivers, too. We were a sort of entertainment for them because Me and Susy would cuss up a storm and the men would laugh till they couldn’t breathe. My Grandmom never had a clue about what we were doing and Thank God, for that. She would have beat the tar out of us.
Our neighborhood was a mesh mash of all kinds of people- Irish, Polish, Italian, Puerto Rican and people who were a mixture of all of them. Nobody got along. Even during the week, the neighborhood was never quiet. There was always some kind of bad blood. Friday nights were the worse tho’. When the sun went down; all hell broke loose. Street fights exploded especially after the bars closed. Moms and dads fought. Kids knocked the hell out of each other. Even dogs fought each other. But that didn’t bother me and Suzy. We thought fist fighting and screaming and yelling was perfectly normal.
Actually our neighborhood wasn’t such a bad place to live because we could do whatever we felt like doing. Reading books and studying wasn’t our thing. We built forts in the abandoned houses and climbed fences and jumped roofs faster than any boy could. We swam in the sewers when they flooded and chewed gum that other people spit out on the ground, and we didn’t care who saw us.
My grandmother called me and Suzy, her little red necks. Actually that was gram’s way of saying that we were too wild and rough to be taught how to be refined and ladylike. That was just fine for me and Suzy, cause we hated the idea of being ladies. We were rough and tough and proud of it.
Actually my grandmother was the real Red neck. She was from the South where the real red necks come from. She came up North when she was a little over 20 looking for work and a better life. Her better life never came. Shortly after coming to Philly, Gram met my grand pop and he gave her a houseful of kids including my mother and my aunt to raise. After all her kids had grown and moved out, she got stuck with me and my cousin to raise. Not that Gram minded cause she loved us. I know that because she sacrificed a lot to keep us well fed and happy.
Down South, life was hard for her. Years of picking and hauling cotton in Alabama and then working in the coal mines of West Virginia gave my Grandmother muscles most men wish they had. She wasn’t a good looking woman but her looks were deceiving. Gram was as good and as kind as any woman could possibly get. Most of our neighbors loved her, but it was the kids who loved Gram the most. If a kid got a piece of glass in his foot it was my Gram who took it out. If the moms got stuck at work she would watch over their kids no matter how late it was. If a girl needed her hair combed and braided she came to Gram. A lot of times in the dead of night a boy would come knocking on our door beaten and bloodied and Gram would take care of him and put him up for the night. Sometimes it was girls in trouble who ended up staying with us for weeks on end. Even little kids knew Gram’s house was a place of refuge.
One night, Napoleon, our Doberman Pinscher, took to whimpering like crazy. Gram kept telling Napoleon to hush up, but he wouldn’t. Finally, Gram had had enough. She got up from her chair and was about to whack him one with her newspaper when she heard faint crying. She stopped and listened. We stopped our wrestling and listened. We heard the sounds of a child crying. Gram went to the door. She raised her hand to wave me and Suzy back as she slowly opened it. Napoleon brushed past her and stood frozen as he looked over the side of our steps. Gram nudged him aside and looked, too. In the corner huddled together were 3 little girls. Their dirty faces smeared with tears. The youngest one was in diapers. The other two weren’t much older; maybe 4 and 5. The oldest one said they had been left by their mother, and they heard noises. “We were scared,” the oldest one cried. Gram picked up the youngest one, “Well, come on. I’ll find out where your Ma is and let her know you gals are here. Now, what’s your ma’s name.” The oldest girl replied, “her name is Marge.” “Ok, lets get you gals inside. all of you should be sound asleep by now,” Gram said as she opened the door with the two older girls behind. “Next time, don’t sit outside. You knock on this here door.” That’s how my Gram talked. She was a straight shooting lady. The little girls nodded. The baby had fallen asleep and Gram put her down on her recliner and covered with her with a baby blanket she had been knitting. She was didn’t bother asking where their mother was. She knew. “Now, you and Susan run down to Ruby’s tavern and find their Ma and tell her they’re here.” Me and Susan rushed out the door, happy to be running the streets so late at night. It wasn’t hard to find the mother. All we had to do was ask for Marge and the bartender pointed out Marge to us. We told her that my Gram had her kids and she simply smiled and went right back to chatting with some guy we never saw before.
Gram fed the girls and washed their faces while me and Suzy made up the couch for them to sleep on. We told them, their mother would get them in the morning,and they didnt seem to mind. We sat next to them and they snuggled up to us like they knew us all their lives. Me and Suzy took turns reading fairy tales to them until they fell asleep.
Gram often told us the lord gave her a mission to do what she could to help others. Even though Gram smoked like a fiend and gambled with cards, she was a devout Christian. She really believed taking care of children and people in need was her calling. She knew what it was like to be poor and alone. Sometimes she told us stories that scared the hell out of us and made us glad that we didnt have to live the life that Gram had while she lived in West Virginia.
Finally, school was out, and me and Suzy took to the streets like wild heathens; that’s what Gram called us when she got mad at us, and it was mostly true. We were wild and entertained ourselves by picking fights, and getting wet under the fire hydrants. But, as the summer days grew longer and the heat became unbearable, we got bored. We got so bored we even wished we were back in school.
Then in one day, a truly exciting thing happened- a lady and her 3 kids moved in. She had twin girls who looked just like her. She had a little boy, too but he didn’t look like his mother or his sisters; not one bit. The little boy was black or Colored- that what my as Gram used for black people. It was truly the most shocking thing me and my cousin ever saw- a white girl with a black son.
The only colored people we ever saw were the trash collectors, and they were men. We wondered how it could be that our new neighbor could have a colored boy. We asked Gram who said, “Sometimes whites and blacks did got together and have babies.” But, Gram admitted she never saw any such thing up here in the North. Gram had seen the little boy and wondered why he was so black. She said mixed babies were usually high yellow or at least coffee colored. “His daddy must have been very black,” Gram said in a surprised tone as she looked him over from a distance, “Well, that gal came to the wrong neighborhood. They aint’ gonna take too kindly to no colored baby. But, you gals don’t be mean to that gal. She already has a big load on her shoulders.” Me and Suzy swore that we would be as nice as could be.
The lady only had a few things so it didn’t take her long to get settled in. As soon as we thought it was OK , we knocked on her door, and introduced ourselves with big smiles on our faces. The lady was all smiles, too and so were her kids. Her name was Jennifer, and she was 22 years old. We thought she was old but Gram said, “22? Well, she’s just a baby herself.” It figured Gram would say that. But I guess when you’re 49, everybody’s a baby.
Everyday, we went to Jennifer’s and stayed for hours. We helped her with cleaning and shopping and helping out with the kids. We talked about Jennifer so much that Gram decided she wanted to meet her. We brought Gram over to introduce to Jennifer. Gram could act like a southern belle when she want and she did just that when she met Jennifer. She was as sweet as could be and she talked to Jennifer like she knew Jennifer all her life. They talked over coffee and smoked cigarette after cigarette. Finally Gram said she had to get home to make supper. Jennifer walked her to the door and watched smiling as my Gram walked down the steps. My Gram was about to walk away but then she saw men across the street staring in Jennifer like vultures waiting to move in on their dying prey. She glared at the men; her hands on hips daring them to say something but they didn’t. Jennifer saw the men, too. It was an awkward moment; Jennifer looked at them and then quickly averted my eyes as if she were the one doing something wrong. “How long have those men been here?” my Gram demanded as she looked over her shoulder at Jennifer. “just for a little bit,” Jennifer replied softy, “they sit there when I come home from work. I think, they’re trying to scare me.” My Gram’s face darkened. She stepped forward to get a better look and that’s when the men got up and left one by one. My Gram watched as they walked away like a soldier guarding her post then she turned her attention to Jennifer. She gave Jennifer a good looking over and said, “if you need anything, Jenny. You come and get me right away. Most of the people here are nice but there are a few who might start trouble with you.” Jennifer stared at my Gram. Her jaw tightened. She nodded and said, “I will, Miss Walker.”
Me and Suzy loved Jennifer right from the start. We couldn’t help it. Jennifer was big boned, tall and blonde. She had the biggest boobs I ever saw; bigger than Gram’s, and hers were huge. She had straight white teeth that didn’t have any tobacco stains on them. Her lips were full and her nose perfectly shaped. Her voice was soft and sweet like she was about to burst out in a church song. She was the most beautiful girl, we ever saw. Gram said the same thing. She was just as enthralled by Jennifer’s beauty as we were. She said, “Why Jennifer looks just like that poor actress murdered in Hollywood.”
Murders happened all the time in our neck of the woods, but most of the time it was because someone got pissed off. Sometimes guys would get in a fight and stab each other. Or sometimes, someone would shoot the other person or run the other person over with their car or truck. It was nothing new and most of the time no one paid no mind to that kind of violence. But the Hollywood murder was different. It was evil- like a horror movie from Chiller theatre. Gram was obsessed with the story and followed it like she did her soap operas.
”This ain’t meant to be born,” my Gram said, “Not even the devil himself would kill a pregnant gal.” For weeks, it was on the news with Gram acting like she personally knew the actress and the other young people who were murdered. My Gram’s friends were as horrified as Gram was and they would talk about what happened for hours. I think the thing that disturbed them the most was that the killers had not only murdered young people, but a girl who was about to have a baby at any moment.
Sometimes as she watched the latest news about the murders, Gram would say to no one in particular, “If I had been there I would have saved that gal.” There was no doubts in our minds about that. We knew that Gram would have saved that girl and her baby even if it meant dying herself. Gram was like that. But it was too late for anyone to save the girl and her baby so Gram and her friends would go to church and pray to the Lord that the killers would be caught. They prayed for the young people, too but most of their prayers were for the little baby who would never feel the warmth of his mother’s skin against his cheek. I saw pictures of the actress on TV. She was as young and beautiful as Gram said she was. But it gave me the creeps to look at her because Gram was right; Jennifer looked just like her. I think the actress’s name was Sharon Tate.
We were at Jennifer’s house practically every day. Her little girls were identical and they were so adorable we could barely keep away from them. We loved to hold them and comb their hair. We would take them to the playground or take them for walks on the railroad tracks. They loved me and Suzy like we were their long lost big sisters. Being referred to as big sisters made me and Suzy feel important and we would boast about it to our friends. Trey didn’t escape our attention either. We made a big fuss over him, too. We loved to listen to him talk. We called him the little old man. His view of the world was unheard of for a 4 year old and his manners were unlike anything we ever saw. Trey reminded us of old Hollywood actors who would wear suits to dinner and get up when a lady walked into the room. He would say, no ma’am and yes ma’am, and would actually introduce himself by first announcing who he was and then offering to shake hands. We were touched by his civility, and would crack up cause he was so sincere in everything he did. There was no question about it. Mr. Trey was a Mr. Personality.
Most of the people in our neighborhood had either blue or dark brown eyes so we were used to seeing different colors. But Trey’s eyes were something else. His were clear and vibrant like the color of beer when the light hit it. Gram said Trey’s were like a cat’s eye. You’d stare into them and feel like you were seeing the inside of yourself. It was kinda strange to stare into the eyes of a little boy and it was even stranger that a little boy would let you stare into his eyes without flinching. Trey had a another handsome thing about himself and that was his juicy lips. It was those lips that did Suzy in. “Where’d you get those lips? I want to bit ‘em!” and with that Trey would cover his mouth and squeal in a way that had all of us laughing.
“Trey, those juicy lips are meant for kissing.” Suzy would say and try to nibble on them. If Trey protested and he did almost all the time, Suzy would say, “then give me a big, Hollywood kiss.” Trey would push Suzy away and run away giggling uproariously and hide.
Sometimes, Gram would get aggravated at Suzy and yell,”Suzanne, will you leave that baby alone. You’re going to give him fever blisters, and his Ma is gonna get mad at me.”
“I’m just giving him Hollywood kisses, Gram,” Suzy would protest. Suzy told me that Hollywood kisses were ok to give to anybody because Hollywood kisses weren’t really the way most people kissed. “How do people really kiss then?” I would ask annoyed because Suzy liked to pretend she knew everything. Suzy was full of arrogance when she said, “people especially teenagers kiss each other with their mouths open and lots of times they use their tongues to kiss.” My eyes widened and I lurched backward in disgust. I didn’t want to believe that people actually used their tongues to kiss. But what Suzy said was true. She told me that she saw that type of kissing in the dirty magazines that Mr. Fisher kept hidden under the sink in his kitchen. Suzy found the magazines by accident one day when she was looking for Pee Wee’s dog food and sneaks a peek at them whenever she can. Now, thanks to Mr. Fisher’s magazines, Suzy was an expert on kissing without having ever kissed a real person. She promised she would show me the magazines but I was too disgusted to even consider it. Hollywood kisses were good enough for me- for now anyway.
The women in our neighborhood noticed Jennifer and her little chocolate boy. They began talking and it wasn’t nice talk. They made no attempt to cover their disgust toward Jennifer, and they gave her nasty looks whenever she walked past them. The mothers on Jennifer’s street wouldn’t let their little daughters play with the twins and that broke their hearts. The twins tried so hard to play with the other girls but the girls pushed them away and ran off with each other leaving the twins behind. They burst into tears when they told us what happened and it happened a lot. Me and my cousin would comfort them but it didn’t help at all. “They’re nasty, they stink and they aint no fun anyway.” We would say the most nastiest things we could think of to make the twins feel better, but they didn’t believe a word of it. They knew why the girls didn’t want to play with them. Little Melanie would cry, “I guess it’s the same no matter what.” Me and Suzy knew what the problem was even though we never talked about it. We didnt care what the neighbors thought or their kids. Nobody was going to keep me and Suzy away from Jennifer and her kids. We didn’t care that Trey looked nothing like his sisters. He looked nothing like us either but he was like a little brother to us. Surprisingly, Gram stuck up for the twins. “Let the dirty grits behave like trash,” she spat. That was Gram’s favorite word for mean whites. She had names for blacks, too. She told me and Suzy that mean people come in all different colors and sizes. Gram didn’t care that Jennifer had a black little boy which was kind of unusual considering the fact that my grandmother came from down South where the news said all mean white people lived. I thought that was a pretty crazy thing to say. Not all mean white people lived down South. We had plenty of them right here in our own neighborhood.
Jennifer suffered in silence. My Gram got her a job working on the assembly line at the whiskey refinery where my Gram worked night shift. On the very day she started, trouble started as well. At first, the woman would ignore her when she said hello to them. Jennifer was hurt but she took it in stride. Then they walked away when she came in their presence. Jennifer took that in stride, too like she was used to it. Me and Suzy knew about it cause people told my Gram and we over heard them. The factory women got worse and worse with each passing day. They treated Jennifer bad- real bad. They called her a nigger lover and a whore right in front of her face. They warned her to keep her eyes off of their men even tho’ Jennifer didn’t even give the men a second look. I know that pained Jennifer to the core. Somehow- through some kind of God given strength- she kept her head up and didn’t give into their taunts and threats. Jennifer ignored them and that made them even more hateful. With each passing day, the abuse intensified. They knew Jennifer was all alone with no one to protect her, and they took pleasure in hurting her. If they saw her walking down the street, they would try to trip her right in front of her little kids. When they saw her at the food market, the women would stop talking and stare her down until Jennifer’s little girls became frightened and cried. Me and Suzy knew about those incidents cause the twins told us. Jennifer never said a word. The women did everything possible to make Jennifer cry but she didn’t at least not in front of them. Our neighbor, Ethel told my Gram that Jennifer sat alone at lunch and during breaks. Nobody talked to her. That made my Gram sad. “ they have no right mistreating her like that. I’m going to have a talk with those gals, Ethel.” Gram tried her best to talk sense in the women when she ran into them during the shift change but they were unmoved.”She’s nothing but a whore,” they would reply and my Gram would thunder back at them, “you don’t know her predicament.” But the women didn’t care about Jennifer’s predicament. They wanted to hurt her.
It was a shame that the women hated Jennifer without even speaking to her or trying to get to know her. One day, I asked Gram why people treated Jennifer bad. Gram said it was because Jennifer was by herself and when people see a gal alone especially a beautiful young gal, they get scared. They think that gal is going to compete against them for their men.”
I was appalled, “But, Gram, Jennifer has no interest in the men around here.”
“Don’t matter, little girl. That gal has a black baby and cause of that they think she’s easy.” Gram took a drag on her cigarette and blew the smoke out slowly through pursed lips. Her blue eyes were serious when they met mine, ” Little girl, it is a man’s world cause women themselves make it a man’s world. Men get respected even if they don’t deserve it, but a woman can get treated like dirt even if she ain’t at fault. That’s why a gal has to have a man around to keep her from being disrespected. It’s a sad fact of life but it’s a fact and there aint nothing can be done about it.” Gram took another draw on her filterless camel, “just keep this in mind, little girl, a woman is a woman’s worst enemy.” I didn’t understand what Gram meant exactly but I knew it was something bad, and I knew that me and Suzy had to keep close watch on Jennifer and her kids.
The one group of kids we had the most trouble was with the Garnets. They were true “grits” as Gram called them. Not only were they mean, they were so damn ugly I couldn’t stand to look at them. Even Gram who had her run ins with the Garnets said, “They are the ugliest of the Irish clans I ever done seen.” Gram wasn’t exaggerating. One of the Garnet boys was especially ugly. Me and Suzy called him “Rat face”. It was Rat Face who discovered Jennifer and her black boy, and alerted his mother soon after Jennifer started working at the same assembly line as his mother. He taunted Jennifer as she walked home from work. He would run up to her and grab at her bosoms. “Nigger lover, nigger whore!” he would shriek like a Tom cat in heat. Jennifer would ignore him, looking straight ahead like he wasn’t there, but that only infuriated him more. One day, Rat face got exceptionally brave. He followed Jennifer right up to the house. That was a bad mistake. Me and Suzy were babysitting. Suzi saw him from the window as he jumped up the steps next to Jennifer. Suzy swung the door open and pounced on him like a trap door spider. He screamed the most pathetic screams as she beat the crap out of him. He managed to get out of Suzy’s grip and swore as he ran he was gonna to get her when she lest expected it. Susan ran after for a short distance and then stopped. She screamed back at him, “Go to hell, Rat. Next time, i’ll beat you so bad you’ll wish you were dead.” Suzy watched with her hands on hips as Rat face turned a corner and disappeared. She strutted back to the house like a proud peacock. Jennifer opened her arms and hugged Suzy “Thank you,” she said softly then she left Suzy go and ran inside the house. We watched in silence as we heard her go up the stairs. Trey and the girls looked at us with stricken eyes. No one said a word. All of us knew Jennifer was in the bathroom crying. Trey stood still for the longest time. Suddenly, Tears came to his beautiful eyes, “it’s because of me, they hurt my mother.”
It was the end of August, and it was hotter than hell. There were so many rats running around it was like we had been invaded. Gram and the neighbors were prepared tho. Every summer it was the same thing- the annual summer rat hunt. Each neighbor had a long stick with a huge nail hammered into the end of it. it was a great weapon for whacking rats in the head. Gram said it was a sin against Jesus to kill unless it was varmints you was killing. So, me and Suzy felt no guilt as we wacked one rat after the other. Jennifer joined in and as soon as she did one neighbor grumbled and left. Then another one followed. Jennifer looked at Gram dismayed. “The hell with ‘em.” Gram hissed, “now, gal you get over here, and help me.” Jennifer helped Gram kill as many as she could. Jennifer was a little too enthusiastic. I guess maybe she was thinking of the mean women when she whacked a rat.
Gram was just being nice to Jennifer. She didn’t need help. She was the best rat killer in Kensington, and had been for years. Every year, Gram killed rats by the scores, and they weren’t the little rats you’d see at the subways. These were big sewer rats that killed cats and jumped into the playpens of little babies. Gram took polaroid snapshots of me and Suzy holding up our trophies of big brown rats with their yellow incisors sticking out of their bloody mouths. We had fun with the dead rats. We had a gang war against the PR girls one Friday night that was especially humid and sticky. When they chased us into our neighborhood, we grabbed our dead rats that we hid under cars and whacked them in the backs with their long hairless tails. They screamed and begged for mercy. Me and Suzy loved every second of it until Gram found out and made us bury the dead rats. That ruined our fun for the summer. The heat worsen. It was nearly impossible to go outside barefoot, the asphalt melted and would stick to your feet and burn like all hell. Even if you didn’t do nothing, you ended up gluey and sweaty. Fights were breaking out everywhere over the most stupid stuff ever.
One day, me and my cousin couldn’t take it anymore. We decided to go and get some ice cream. We had saved enough money by scrubbing steps and we wanted a treat. We asked Jennifer if we could take the kids and she said that was fine. Problem was the place we wanted to get ice cream was kinda off limits cause that’s where the PR girls lived. Man, if they saw us there they would go nuts. We were scared to death but the heat was doing strange things to us. We decided that going to Jose’s ice cream pallor was worth the risk of getting beat up for some ice cream.
We headed out toward the avenue. The girls had skipped ahead. Suzi carried Trey piggy back. We were laughing even though the sweat itched our backs. I was tickling Trey when I saw someone stick their head out of an alleyway. I squinted and wondered who the hell was that? I soon found out. The head belonged to Rat Face. He leapt from the alleyway and knocked the twins to the ground. The girls screamed. “Your mother‘s a whore.” He hissed, his face red with rage that only bullies have. His brother, Brad pounced on little Gwen and tried to drag her back into the alley. Me and Suzy were so shocked all we could do was look. Then Trey screamed and struggled to get off Suzy. That got us moving. Suzy put Trey down and we rushed at the two Garnet boys like fullbacks on a football field. Apparently, they were too stupid to notice we were even there cause they looked shocked when they saw us. Suzy socked Rat face in the mouth and he went down to his knees howling in pain. I grabbed Brad by the hair and slapped him so hard his nose bled. The girls were hysterical. They ran to us, and clung to our legs. “You keep away from the girls, Rat face or I’ll beat the shit out of you.” Suzy threatened as she stood over him. Rat face writhed in agony. “You’re gonna regret this, Suzy. I’m going to tell my mom what you did and that you hang out with that nigger lover whore’s kids.”
“oh, yeah! go ahead tell that fat ugly mother of yours. See if I care. And, Jennifer aint no whore. She’s good. Your mother is jealous cause she’s so beautiful,” Suzy huffed. “My mother maybe ugly, Suzy but so are you.” “I aint ugly,” Suzi said without flinching, “I just look like a boy. My mom said I was supposed to be a boy.” “Yeah Suzy. So where’s your mother? Everybody knows she’s in jail. She’s nothing but a criminal,” Rat face sneered. What Rat face said was true. Both our mothers were in jail. Suzy sucked in her breath. That hit a nerve. She went after Rat face and Brad like a bull charging but the two boys scrambled to get to their feet and took off running. Suzy was too exhausted and upset to chase them. “Don’t pay them no mind. our moms are in jail but that doesn’t make them bad. You know that as well as i do.” Suzy was catching her breath. Her eyes were on the Garnet boys, but she heard me and nodded her head. When the boys were half way down the block, Rat face turned to us. He unzipped his fly and exposed himself. We shrieked in disgust and quickly covered the faces of the twins. I got to my knees and examined the girls. They were scrapped up on the knees but otherwise unhurt. I kissed their knees and said, “See, I made them all better.” They were still tearful. I wanted to distract them so I said, “Did you see how Suzy kicked their butts?” I smiled at them. They nodded but they didn’t return my smile. “They got what was coming to them. Now, lets get some ice cream. That will cheer you up.” I laughed and held out my hand to the girls but they didn’t take it. “i want to go home,” Melanie whimpered. “I do, too.” Gwen whispered. Trey didn’t say anything but I could tell by the look in his eyes that he wanted to go home too.
We wanted to stay with the girls, and Trey but the yearning for ice cream was stronger. We dropped them off, and high tailed it to Jose’s. We screamed as our callused feet touched the pavements and howled even worse when we raced across the asphalt streets. The streets were empty and we heaved a sigh of relief when we got our precious ice cream. It wasn’t until we were nearly out of enemy territory that we were spotted. We were chased but we were faster than the girls who were coming after us. We crossed the avenue, and made the most obscene gestures ever invented at the girls who threatened to get us the next time.
We giggled as we remembered the looks of the girls when they saw us on their turf calmly strutting our stuff licking our ice cream like we owned their streets. Where we sat at our usual spot. It felt good to press our skinny bodies against the cold granite of our old church. I was happily sucking on the bottom of my cone when I noticed Suzy had stopped licking hers. She stared straight ahead. “Suzy?” She didn’t answer. I stood up to get a better view. What I saw made my knees nearly buckle. It was the whole Garnet clan storming down the street headed right toward us. In the front was the mother, Pat. She was a huge woman and meaner than a junk yard dog. Behind her back, we called her “Fat Pat”. Alongside her, strode her kids. There were so many of them, it was whispered in the neighborhood that even Pat didnt know how many kids she had. Walking behind her kids, were her nieces and nephews. All together, it looked like Pat had an army and that army were coming straight at us. All we could do was stand still like deer in front of a hunter’s gun. Suzy’s ice cream plopped to the ground but she was so startled she didn’t even notice. Pat thundered toward us with her hands on her immense hips.
“Git the hell over here you two,” she hissed. I was so scared I thought I was going to faint. But Suzy was unyielding. She put her hands her hips and walked beside me. “Yeah, Mrs. Garnet?” I murmured like a scared rabbit. Pat eyed us up and down with her little eyes that reminded me of a pig’s. “Where does that nigger loving whore live?”
“Wha?” I stammered. Only white trash like Pat Garnet would talk like that to a kid. “You know who I’m talking about, little girl”, she glared at me like she was gonna bite me in half. “Where’s that girl Jennifer live?“ My body was shaking so bad, I could barely get the words out. “She lives in Claire West’s old house. I looked past Pat. Her family had gathered close to her. I knew all Pat hard to do was give the word and they would tear us to pieces. I closed my eyes so I wouldn’t have to see them pouncing on me. I put my hand on my chest to quiet my heart thudding against my chest.
“What’d you want her for?” Suzy broke in with her usual flippant manner. Pat puckered her mouth up in an evil sneer. She brushed Suzy aside and marched toward Jennifer’s house. Suzy’s flippancy disappeared. She had a frightened look on her face and that frightened me more than anything cause Suzy was never frightened by anything until today. Suzy raced after Pat, pleading, “Yo, Pat. We’re the ones who beat your sons. Jennifer never did anything to you.” Pat laughed an ugly laugh as she marched ahead. “I’ve been waiting for a chance to beat that whore.” Me and Suzy begged and then pleaded with Pat not to hurt Jennifer. We tried to run ahead to warn Jennifer but Rat face and Brandon grabbed us and shoved us to the ground. But, we were so full of adrenaline that we bounced right back up.
Suzy ran ahead of me, going as fast as she could. She almost made it to Jennifer’s door but Lee Garnet appeared out of nowhere and tripped her. Suzy fell hard against the cement and Lee grabbed her hair screaming at her not to move or she was going to rip Suzy’s hair out of her head. I was sobbing as I watched Pat and her clan assemble at Jennifer’s door. Pat banged on the door hard. We saw Jennifer glide past her window and go toward the door. We screamed as hard as we could, “Don’t’ Jennifer! Don’t open the door!” But, there was no way, Jennifer could have heard us. She opened the door with a smile on her face, and said “Hi,Pat. What’s wrong?” Without a word, Pat brought back her fist and sucker punched Jennifer in the face. Jennifer was too shocked to even react. Me and Suzy screamed. Jennifer gave us a stunned, vague look. She put her hand to face as blood began to pour from her smashed mouth. Then, Pat did something that was terrible even for our neighborhood. She grabbed Jennifer by her hair and dragged her down the steps all the while punching her in the face. “Rip off the whore’s shirt!” Pat ordered her kids. She held Jennifer’s hair so tight it looked like she was going to rip off Jennifer’s scalp. Pat’s youngest kids pounced like rabid squirrels on a helpless bird. Jennifer’s shirt was ripped off then her bra was unsnapped. Jennifer’s chest was exposed for the whole world to see. A large crowd had gathered around and they hooted and hollered. Jennifer sobbed and fought back while she tried to cover her breasts. The twins were shrieking as rushed to their mother’s aid but were kicked away. ”Gwen! Melanie!” The fear I felt just a few moments before was gone. I rushed at the Garnets in a rage. I bit, I pinched and I punched whoever stood in my way. “Get back to the house,” I screamed at the twins. They wailed in terror too paralyzed to move. There was so much blood in my face,I could barely see. One of Pat’s nieces grabbed my hair but I clawed her face, and she let go.
Through the maze of hair and arms and legs, I saw Trey run to his mother. He tried to cover her with his tiny body. I hearad a scream and glanced up in time to see Suzy jump on Pat’s back. Suzy hit her hard in the neck. But it didn’t faze Pat at all. She grabbed Suzy and flung her to the ground like she was a sack of potatoes. Suzy landed on her back and her head snapped backwards hitting the concrete. Gasping, she staggered to her feet and came toward me like a drunk. “Get Gram!” She cried. Blood was oozing from her mouth.
I ran so hard I thought my heart was gonna pop out of my mouth. I jumped up the steps and ran screaming into the house. Gram was sitting at the kitchen table smoking a cigarette and eating some lunch. “Gram!”
“What is it girl?” Gram’s usual rosy face turned pale when she saw the blood on my face.
“Pat Garnet is going after Jennifer. Her kids are beating up the twins. They hit Suzy.” I was trembling so bad I could barely talk.
My grandmother took a deep drag of her cigarette. She looked at me real hard as if she knew this moment would come. Her blue eyes darkened to a deep blue just like the Siamese cat we had years ago. I remembered that cat and how its eyes deepened in color just before it clawed Suzy for touching her newborn kittens. I remembered how Gram saved Suzy. She grabbed that damn cat and broke its neck.
Gram exhaled. “Get me the gun,” she said in a voice that made my heart thud even harder. I rushed over to the cabinet and pulled out the 22. “No, not that one. The shot gun,” Gram said. It was the 12 g. Gram had brought it with her from Alabama. I handed it to her. She walked over to the cabinet and took out 2 bullets and loaded them in. She was as composed as a grill sergeant, “Let’s go!”
I ran and my gram run just a few steps behind me. We rounded the corner, and saw Jennifer’s kids screaming for their mother as men and boys squealed like crazed pigs. Some of the kids yelled at Pat to get away from Jennifer, but none of them had the guts to intervene except Suzy. Somehow she had managed to gather her strength and get back into the fray. She clung Pat like a pit bull in a fighting rink. Trey never left Jennifer; he clung to his mother as she was beaten. His Amber eyes wide in terror, his handsome mouth open wide in a scream that was frozen in silence.
It felt like I was gone forever but actually it was only a few minutes. Gram hoisted her gun up against her shoulder and walked down the street stiff legged. Her face set in grim determination. I was never so proud of her. She always knew what to do, my Gram did. Gram stepped right up to the crowd with her shot gun pointed at Pat. “Get the fuck off her, you dirty grit.” The words reverberated around the mob like jet booms resounding across the sky. The whole crowd stopped astounded. Gram had used the F word, and she never used the F word. Gram couldn’t read and write. She never even been to a fancy place or had fancy clothes but that none of that mattered, Gram was a lady who had never uttered that foul word in her life. Now Pat Garnet had made my Gram so angry she uttered that foul word. It was more than I could bear. New tears stung my eyes.
Pat let go of Jennifer and Jennifer crumbled to the ground like a broken doll. Her twins scrambled to her, weeping hysterically. They lay their little bodies on top of her. “You don’t scare me, Marie.” Pat sneered. “that gun is just for show. It don’t work.” Gram never took her eyes from Pat. She pointed her gun toward an abandoned car. There was a blast of fire from the 12 g. The back window shattered and sprayed in every direction. The old car lurched upward like a young girl who had just been wacked in the ass. “Looks like it works just fine to me, Pat.” my Gram retorted, and swung the gun back into position. Pat’s eyes widened. For a moment I swear my grandmother was going to shoot her. There was a silence as the two women stared each other down. Then from the crowd, I heard Ethel call out, “Marie, don’t do it. Think about the kids.” Gram heard her. I could tell her mind was full of thoughts. What would happen to us if she shot Pat? Gram knew she would go to jail, and we would be put into foster homes.
My mind was whirling. Foster parents would try to make us behave. The idea was enough to make me puke and I already felt like I was about to puke. Gram’s face was fierce, but she saw the light of reason. She lowered her shot gun “Pat, you aint’ worth shooting. But I’ll get you for this. You just wait and see.” Gram was right about that one. She would get Pat, but that’s another story that will have to wait for another time.
No one called the police even though there was blood everywhere. Jennifer got hurt and so did we. But that didn’t matter. When I was growing up, no one called the police. There was an unspoken code that was never broken.
Pat saw the light of reason, too. She didn’t want to chance getting shot. Even though it was lowered, Marie still had her shot gun in her hands. Pat knew my Gram. They had their brief encounters when my Gram finished her night shift and Pat was starting her day one. Marie Walker was a crazy red neck and crazy red necks were very unpredictable. Even Pat knew that. She decided it was best to back off. Having a battle with Marie was not what she had come for. She had accomplished her mission. She had beat Jennifer up. Pat hated the girl from day one. She didn’t know why she hated the girl when she was hired to work at the refinery next to her and the other girls, but she did. When Rat Face told her the girl had a black baby that was it. Pat’s hatred festered like an infected sore.
The crowd watched in silence as Pat spat on the ground. She gave Gram a dirty look, and Gram returned it in kind.
“Let’s get going.” Slowly, Pat walked off and her family fell in behind her. No one said a word. My Gram watched as they disappeared. then she turned her attention to the crowd of onlookers. She narrowed her eyes but did not say a word as people walked away. I knew what she was thinking- chickens every one of them. They could have jumped in to help Jennifer like me and Suzy did but they didn’t. I thanked God my Gram wasn’t a chicken and that me and Suzy had her blood in our veins.
But I wasn’t angry at them. I understood they were too afraid of Pat and maybe we would have acted in the same way if it had been someone els. But our love for Jennifer was greater than our fear and that was a blessing. I realized after the fight that love does conquer all because love is the greatest of all emotions. And, its so powerful that it can over take the worst of all emotions and thats Fear. Love gives you strength when you need it most.
Gram rushed over to Jennifer, and pulled her up into her arms. “Susan, get that torn shirt over yonder so I can cover this gals’ bosoms.” Suzy’s hands were shaking as she handed the torn shirt to Gram who draped it over Jennifer’s chest. Jennifer was so out of it, she seemed not to know where she was. My Gram lightly tapped her face. “Jenny, gal, l’m gonna take you back in your house. Don’t you fret. Those people aint no good. That’s all.” Gram helped Jennifer to her feet. Jennifer stumbled a few times but my Gram held her firm. Jennifer slowly put one foot in front of the other like she was a newborn baby leaning to walk. She mumbled words to my Gram. I saw Gram shake her heard and say,”no, they’re gone, Sweetheart. and they’re gone for good.”
My grandmother called to me and Suzy and we snapped to attention. ” Get those babies cleaned up,” she said quiet like. I gathered up Trey. The two girls followed behind Suzy. They were quiet now. Their faces strained. Its a terrible thing for Trey and the twins to witness- their own mother beaten and humiliated right in front of them and there wasn’t a damn thing they could do but scream. Tears blurred my eyes as I watched the twins. They clung to each other as they walked slowly in front of me. It was like the weight of the whole world bore down on their thin shoulders.
Gram got a towel and ran cold water over it. She gently wiped the blood from Jennifer’s face. Jennifer’s eyes were so swollen I could only see a sliver of blue peering out from the black purple. Jennifer was trying so hard to be strong. I could tell. Her body shook as she struggled to hold herself in check. “Everywhere I go my kids get beat. They hurt my little girls. They hurt my Trey, and he’s only a little boy. I can’t take it. I want to get out of here. Now.” She broke down and sobbed. I never heard anyone cry as hard as Jennifer did and it was too muh for me. I felt tears coming down my face once more. She grasped my Gram’s arm and lowered herself to the floor. She sobbed as she knelt on her knees and held out her arms to her three children. “God, please help my babies. I just can’t take it anymore.”
Trey pulled away gently from Jennifer and whimpered, “Mom, send me away. It’s because of me they hate us so much.” Jennifer jerked up like he had slapped her. Her eyes widened despite the enormous swelling as she looked at him furiously.
“Don’t you say that again, Trey. Don’t you dare. You ain’t going nowhere.” Jennifer snapped. Me and Suzy sucked in our breaths. It was the only time, we saw Jennfer angry. “I made a promise to your mother and you will stay with me until you finish school and get married. Do you understand, Trey? You’ll stay with me as my son. All of us stay together as a family no matter what happens.”
Me and Suzy looked at each other stupefied. My gram’s mouth dropped open. “His mother? You mean you ain’t his mother?” My grandmother struggled with the words. Jennifer never said a word about herself and because of that we just assumed what we assumed.
“No,“ Jennifer sobbed, “Trey ain’t really mine. Trey was my foster sister’s son. We loved each other like we was real sisters. When we were young we promised each other that we’d always be there for each other no matter what. My sister died when Trey was just a baby in diapers. I kept my promise and I took Trey to raise as my boy.”
“Oh, Lordy! saints’ preserve us,” my grandmother raised her hands as if in prayer. There was a look of deep pain on her face. “Jennifer, you made a promise to your foster sister now, I’m making a promise to you. Nobody and I mean nobody is gonna to hurt you or your kids again. I swear on God in heaven.”
“No, Miss Walker, I want to leave. I won’t stay in this neighborhood. They hate me without even knowing me. They curse at me and they don’t even know my name. No, I can’t stay here. I have some money saved and I think maybe Florida will be a better place. Maybe they won’t be so mean down South. There has to be a place on this earth where my kids can grow up safe and not have worry about being called names or beat up. There has to be.” Jennifer started to weep again real soft like. My grandmother went to Jennifer and held her like Jennifer should have been held when she was a little girl growing up. “Oh, no! Grand mom! “Suzy cried out anguished. I looked up and saw tears sliding down my grandmother’s face. My redneck grandmother, the best rat killer in Kensington, was crying. My cousin and me were so shocked we began to cry, too. Moisture was sliding down the walls of the old house. it was as if the house was crying for Jennifer, too. We put our arms around my Gram as she held Jennifer. And Trey and the twins wrapped their tiny arms around us. Gram wept as she raised her voice in prayer that Jennifer and her children would not have to suffer anymore hate or grief. All of us wept as she prayed. i could feel the twins clutch at me tighter. They wanted to be free of hate more than anything. I knew that because th I could feel it straight down to my inner core. With a Amen, Gram regained her composure even though it took a lot of strength. She dabbed her eyes, “jennifer, please don’t leave. Get some rest. the worst is behind you.”
Jennifer gazed up at my grandmother. Even now, she was so beautiful. She had been raised without love and she needed love so bad; the love that only a mother could give.” Thank you, Miss Walker; I never had anyone stick up for me except you. Even when I was little no one ever did.”
I saw my grandmother’s jaw tighten. She took Jennifer’s face between her two gnarled hands, and said so softly I could barely hear her, “Don’t you worry none. We’ll be seeing you in the morning. We’ll talk then.” Gram knew the time had come for us to leave. She met our eyes and motioned for us to go.
“I want to stay with Jennifer and help with the kids,” Suzy announced in a very motherly tone. She was in the middle of washing trey’s face and wanted to comb Gwen’s knotted hair.
“Suzanne,” my grandmother said, “give this poor girl some breathing room.” My cousin was about to open her mouth to protest but my Gram’s glare stopped her cold. Inmmediately, Suzi stopped what she was doing. She didn’t say anything but I could tell that she was fuming. Me and Gram said our goodbyes. Suzy was following close behind then as if remembering something important, she bolted back into the house. “Jenny, I’m sorry about what happened. Don’t leave. We love you.” Then she kissed Jennifer like Jennifer was her own mother. Jennifer smiled and even though it must have hurt real bad to smile. “You’re good like your grandmom, Suzanne.”
“Good night, Jennifer. Good night, Gwen. Good night, Melanie.Good night,Trey; sweet, kind boy.” I whispered the good nights once more as if they were prayers. We headed home. None of us talked. But, we knew what the other was thinking- how to make it all up to Jennifer and her kids. I knew Gram would never let anyone bully Jennifer again. I knew that as sure as I knew my own name.
As soon as we got home, me and Suzy rushed upstairs. It was almost 2 am. I washed the dried blood from my face and quickly brushed my teeth then jumped into bed. I crawled next to Suzy. Her eyes were closed but I knew she was still awake. I closed my eyes, too but my mind was racing. I kept thinking about how my grandmother stood up to Pat when no one else would. I smiled as I remembered how Gram looked Pat in the eyes and didn’t flinch. I never told my Gram I loved her and I wished so much I had. I should have told her before I went to bed but now it was too late. I promised myself I would tell her tomorrow and then I fell asleep.
The sun had just come up and steam was lifting up from the streets, when me and Suzy woke up. There was no alarm to wake us. We simply opened our eyes. Without a word, we quickly dressed, brushed our teeth and bounded out the door like we were on a mission. It never occurred to us that Jennifer and the kids might still be sleeping and would not appreciate us bounding into their house at 6:15 in the morning. We ran down the street toward Jennifer’s house. We were all smiles even though we were sore from head to toe. Feral cats and a few rats made a mad rush to get away from us. We laughed as they dodged under cars. Normally, we would throw rocks at the rats but not on this morning. Suzy raced ahead of me. I giggled as I struggled to catch up to her. We rounded the corner, and then stopped straight on a dime. Something was wrong. Jennifer’s car wasn’t there. The front door was slightly ajar. As we got closer to the house, I felt an odd shiver go down my spine. How could Jennifer forget to lock her door? Hesitantly, we went up to the door and knocked. Suzy pushed the door open and yelled in. There was no answer. We peered in. All of Jennifer’s meager furniture was still there but we sensed something was terribly wrong. We stepped in. Our eyes grew accustomed to the dark and thats when we noticed a note was on the couch arm. Suzy picked up the letter, unfolded it and read the most beautiful script I ever saw, “Miss. Walker and girls, I have to leave. I can’t stay in a neighborhood that was so mean to my children and me. I will never forget how good you were to me and my kids. Please pray for us. I love all of you.”
Our eyes scanned the words again. Jennifer and the kids were gone and they had left without even saying goodbye.
“Oh, no,” Suzy moaned. “Jennifer doesnt have anyone. And when people see her alone they’ll beat her up. ” She began to cry. it wasn’t the cry I was used to. These were frantic cries. ”Come on. Let’s go.” I wanted to leave. But Suzy pushed me away. “Jennifer, wait!” She rushed upstairs. “Trey! Gwen! Melanie! Come back!” she called to them over and over again even though she knew they were long gone. She ran to the back of the house. She yanked open the door that led to a vacant lot. The look in her eyes would have broke the hardest heart. “Jennifer, come back! come back! Jennifer, I’m sorry.” Her weeping grew so deep her voice slurred. “Jennifer! I sorry.I sorry.” I never seen her act like this before. I clutched her tight hoping that would make her feel better but she barely noticed my arms around her. “What’s gonna happen to them? I can’t take the thought of Jennifer running into another Pat.”
“Don’t worry,” I said in a controlled voice even though my stomach was in a knot. “They’ll be OK down South.”
“Yep, I can feel it in my bones.” Susy grew quiet. I knew she was thinking hard, struggling with what might be and what might not be true.
I hoped against hope what I said was true but deep inside I wasn’t so sure.
We stood there by the back door listening to the sounds of our breathing. The sun was makng it way up from the horizon, beaming brilliant yellows over the roofs of the row homes that stood across the lot. Susan’s whimpering had slowed and then something caught her eye. She bent down and picked up a tiny plastic doll that lay against the wall. She had bought the doll for Melanie at the Woolworth’s on Kensington Ave. Her lip quivered,”they must have been in a big rush cause Melanie loved this little doll. She’ll probably be crying for it when she realizes its’ gone.” Suzy kissed the doll like she used to kiss Melanie. She started to cry again as she gently put the doll’s ruffled hair back in place. Reality was sinking in. Jennifer and her kids were gone. It didn’t matter if they were going to a safer place. They had left us. I lifted up my shirt and wiped away Suzy’s tears as they made salty streaks down her face. I did my best to keep my hands steady. I was feeling the pain of loss, too. There was a glow of Suzy’s face that I never saw before. The salt from her tears had turned her eyes a brilliant blue; her face was pale and bright. She actually looked pretty.
“Suzy, lets go home.” The house was suffocating me. All the tears that had been shed within its walls since last night pressed down on me. I had to get out. “Jennifer, why did you leave us?” I wondered as a sob heaved from my chest. I wished to God I could have done something to convince Jennifer to stay, but I’m just a kid. I felt more helpless then I did yesterday during that horrible fight. The memory of Jennifer having her shirt and bra torn off unfolded before me like an old silent film. The look of anguish on her face hit me like a jab to the stomach. I wanted to cry out but not now, not in front of Suzy. I pressed my fingers against my eyes to keep the tears back and that’s when Gram’s face flashed before me pure and strong like an Archangel. Gram, my Gram. She would get Jennifer to come back.
Suddenly I was full of confidence, “I know what to do, Suzy.” My cousin looked at me, strained and exhausted. “Let’s wake up Gram and tell her what happened. She’ll find out where Jennifer is and convince her to come back. I know she will.” A smile came to Suzi’s lips when she heard our Grandmother’s name.
When everything falls apart, when all hell breaks lose, me and Suzi both knew we could always count on Gram to come to the rescue. She was our Archangel.
Suzy didnt say a word. Her smile told me I was right. Jennifer and her kids would come back to the house and the neighbors would never treat them mean again.
The bright rays of the sun were hitting our faces now. I knew that was a sign. I smiled and kissed Suzy on the cheek. Clasping my hand tightly, she pressed her shoulder next to mine then we headed home.