I don’t mind sleeping on the floor. There are plenty of blankets to sleep and to cover up with. More than enough for the three of us – me and my little brothers Bryan and Austin. We are all warm. Protected from the frigid early-December nights in Brooklyn. Safe from the dangers lurking in alleyways and abandoned storefronts we used to call home. We have a real home now; a cozy place with lights, heat, and running water on the 6th floor of the Louis H. Pink projects. It’s a welcomed change. We finally have privacy and doors that lock. No more cement floors of vacant structures or cold tile of the homeless shelters.
Even with the violent thunderstorm pounding at the windows of the living room where we lay huddled together, my brothers sleep peacefully for the most part. No clash of thunder causes them to flinch, but Bryan lies with his foot pressed against my ribs, jabbing me occasionally. Mama’s in the bedroom. She calls it her office. The door is always locked. It is where she gets all of her work done. Many nights, just like tonight, we’d hear her working. There’s a lot of knocking, grunting, and moaning. It sounds like her and the man she works with are building a skyscraper. Mama loves her work. I can tell by the laughs when all the knocking stops.
Mama’s door opens and out she comes with the gentleman heading out the front door.
“Who was that, mama?” I ask.
“Your Uncle Bo. He was helping with my job,” she replies. I don’t remember having an Uncle Bo. Then again, I don’t know any of the uncles that leave this apartment in the middle of the night.
I stare at her for a moment. Her fair skin is moist and glowing and her freckles look darker. Her frizzy, red hair is tousled like she has just woken up. Her skin of her thin body glistens with sweat. She has a glow about her. It seems like she’s gotten a lot done despite the storm and the few times the power kicked off and on. In my trance, I begin to twirl my light brown curls around my finger. I think of my daddy as I do. He has the same curls and the same walnut complexion as I do. Mama calls me his twin, especially since I hardly look like her.
“Chil’, if you don’t get your hand out yo hair. Gonna make it harder to comb for school in the morning.”
“And why are you awake anyway?” she asks. “Just ‘cause you 10 years old now, don’t mean you can stay up all kinds of night.”
“I just can’t sleep. And Bryan keeps kicking me.”
Mama takes him and moves him on the other side of Austin.
“I ain’t wake ya, did I baby? Me and Uncle Bo tried to keep it down.”
“Nah.” I say then ask, “Do I have to go to school tomorrow? We’re not really doing anything important.”
“Why you trynna get outta school? You ain’t never missed a day or ever wanted to.”
I look away from her, pulling my blanket up to my chin. That was the truth. Even when we were out on the streets with no place to call home, I went to school every day at PS 224, on time, no matter what, using every resource available. Mama wanted more for me than she ever had. She wants me to be educated and articulate. I read books for fun that high school kids complain about having for homework. That’s how Mama wants it. She wants me to be better than she has ever been. She says there is more to life outside of East New York and she wants me to explore through learning until I make it out of the projects.
“Them new kids messin’ wit’ ya still, ain’t they? I should go up to that school.”
“Please don’t. It’s okay mama, I swear. I just don’t feel well.”
“You’re fine. It’s them damn bullies. You’re going to school, Tasha. You can keep letting them mess with you or you can be a woman and do something about it. You too smart and pretty to let these fools steal your sunshine.”
With that, she bends down and kisses my forehead and returns to her office. The lock clicks. She always locks the door, no matter what. Maybe it’s so no one messes up what she’s working on.
Mama works hard. Day and night, she’s in and out of that bedroom door. There are even times me and the boys are alone the entire day. She tells me that she has to travel for work sometimes to make more money. Each time, I watch her from the window, tossing an old, camouflage Army duffle bag into the backseat of the station wagon. It used to be the bag my daddy used in the Army. He took it the night he left a few years ago. I still don’t know how Mama got it back.
I’m responsible while she’s away. I do everything for Bryan and Austin that Mama does. I feed them, bathe them, and change their stinky diapers. I remember one time, Austin had diarrhea and left a trail of poop from the living room to the bathroom as I rushed to get him into the tub. It was so gross but I cleaned up so well that no one could tell it ever happened. Mama was so proud. She said I was growing into becoming woman because only a woman can handle difficult things on their own as well as I did. She said even those kinds of women make mistakes and I had made one. She smiled and told me to remember to check the date on the baby’s milk next time.
She always brings up mistakes when we have our talks. Mama tells me that it’s okay if you make mistakes just as long as you fix them. You do bad stuff, and then you turn around and do good to correct it. Then, the mistakes go away. It’s cancelled out. Almost like it never happened. I think that’s why mama is finally working. She’s trying to do good things to cancel out all of the bad she’s done.
Austin rolls over onto me, breaking me away from my thoughts. I look over at my brothers. The glow from a small nightlight makes them stick out from the darkness. They look like two gingerbread men with their golden brown complexion and Carrot-colored hair. Hair like Mama. I push my brother away until he and Bryan are wrapped up in each other. I close my eyes and listen to the rain.
“Ay crack baby, why you trynna hide from us? Ol’ raggedy ass.” says Kyleeka in front of the three girls that hang around her to leech off her popularity. I can never remember their names. I don’t think Kyleeka can either. She just barks at them, calling them “Ay, girl.”
“I am not a crack baby.”
“Yes you is. Yo’ bummy ass dress like a crack baby. Yo’ funky shoes is older then you! My grandmamma used to wear them when she was a kid.” The small group erupts with laughter with high-fives going around. All of the sounds bounce off the gymnasium walls where we have indoor recess for the day. I look down at my shoes briefly. They really aren’t that bad. I’m not sure what the brand is. Mama picked these up at a thrift store. They’re off-white with a pink bottom and sparkly pink stars on the sides; a bit worn out but that’s fine. They’re not Nike or Reebok but they keep my feet warm and dry. These girls fishing for reasons to taunt me. Today it’s my shoes, tomorrow it’s my uniform, then the next day, my hair.
“This is unnecessary. I won’t let you make me miserable. ‘Bye, Kyleeka.”
“Look at this actin’ like she a white girl. Don’t be foolin’ ‘cause ya mama is white. You black just like the rest of us.” She takes a short pause and continues. “I can’t stand you trynna talk all fancy. You trynna make me look dumb, ain’t you?”
She’s doing a great job of it on her own, I think to myself. Instead of saying what was on my mind, I say, “I have to go.” And I leave. I find myself in an empty classroom reading The Catcher in the Rye. Normally, no one is allowed in here alone but my teacher lets me stay as long as I let no one in. Sometimes, she sits with me.
“That Holden is quite the character,” My teacher, Ms Letsy, says in her subtle Jamaican accent. “I’ve never had a student read like you do. You’re rather special, Tasha.”
Ms. Letsy smiles at me. She has a beautiful, bright smile lined with red lipstick that contrasts her deep chocolate skin. Her cheeks sit high and plump on her face. They look like they belong to a larger woman. From the neck down, Ms. Letsy was no bigger than my tiny mama. I know this for a fact because Ms. Letsy has known us for a long time and used to give my mama her old clothes to wear.
Mama and Ms. Letsy met in one of the shelters we lived in. It was just me and Mama at the time. I was maybe 4 or 5 years old. Ms. Letsy was a counselor there. She’d come in once a week and help people, including Mama, find jobs, housing, or at least something warm to wear. She spent a lot of time with us, almost like family. When she became a teacher, she helped me get enrolled into school. She even helped me with uniforms and shoes and making sure I could always get there. Seven months ago, Ms. Letsy helped Mama get the apartment we’re in now. Mama was pregnant with the boys and didn’t want them to have to live on the street like I did, so Ms. Letsy did what she could to convince the superintendent that the rent will always get paid. We’re grateful to have her. I know she’ll be grateful to hear that Mama’s working now and that we don’t need nearly as much help anymore.
Ms. Letsy and I talk about the book for a little while then she asks about Mama.
“Haven’t heard from your mother in a few weeks. Is everything okay?”
“Mmhmm” I respond with my nose still in the book.
“Tasha, are you telling the truth?”
“Mmmhmm” I still do not look up from the pages.
“Baby, close the book and look at me.”
I do as I’m told. She looks at me with concern in her eyes.
“Everything is fine. The electricity and everything has stayed on,” I say to her. “We don’t have beds yet but mama says we will soon. She’s been working a whole lot to make it happen.”
“Oh,” she says. Her concern now sounds like surprise. “So she took that job at the warehouse I told her about? “
“No. She works from home. Building things in her office. “
Ms. Letsy’s surprise turns into a look of confusion.
“Building?” she asks.
“Yeah. I hear all kinds of knocking and stuff when she’s in her office with one of my uncles. Sounds like construction so I think she builds things and sells them.”
“Uncles? Tahsa, you don’t have—“ She stops herself for some reason. “What are these uncles’ names?”
“Um, last night, it was Uncle Bo helping her. Then there was Uncle Tim, Uncle Chris, Uncle White Mike, Uncle John Boy, Uncle Rodney…”
As I continue to name names, Ms. Letsy’s eyes roll around her head. She takes a deep breath and shakes her head. Her confusion looks like anger. She mumbles something to herself. All I can make out is “I cannot believe her.” Not sure what she can’t believe.
“Tasha, I want you to keep your head in those books. Never stop reading. Let the words take you to another place,” she tells me. I’m not sure why she’s telling me this or what it was to do with our talk about Mama’s job but I take it on anyway. She hands me a stack of math worksheets to place on each desk before the other students come in from recess.
Walking up Autumn Ave. to our building, only a few blocks from school, I run into Mama rushing to throw that old duffle bag into the car.
“Hey, Tasha, Mama’s gotta go meet up somewhere else work today. Ms. Stevenson from down the hall is watchin’ the boys until you get in so she can leave for work. I’ll be home before midnight. Promise.” She runs over to kiss and leaves. Must be running late, I guess.
I relieve Ms. Stevenson and start my usual routine. I make sure they’re clean and not hungry. Get a snack for myself. Then I get my homework done. From there, I just maintain everything and make sure the boys don’t put strange things in their mouths and choke to death. Everything is tame during the day. Bryan and Austin tire themselves and fall asleep before six o’clock. That leaves me with nothing to do for a few hours. I spend the time sitting around, reading and coloring but something is bothering me. Mama’s office. Something feels different about that room. I find myself peering over my shoulder at it often and eventually I stand in front of it. I place my hand on the doorknob. I take a moment to listen as I turn the knob. It makes no sound. She forgot to lock it. I will finally see all of Mama’s hard work. I’ll see the wonderful things that were produced from all of those noisy evenings with my uncles.
I push the door open with my right hand and search for the light switch with the left. A dimly lit bulb comes on in the middle of the bedroom. There’s stuff all over the carpet. A stack pile of magazines catch my eye immediately. I see naked people doing nasty things with each other. I quickly start to scan the floor. There’s a waste basket overflowing with balled up tissues and small, torn squared wrappers. Clothes are thrown everywhere. Not Mama’s everyday clothes, thought. These clothes look small enough for me to wear. Not that I would. They look like club clothes. Sparkles and lace. I look from the floor to the mattress lying under the light. It’s an old, stained mattress like the ones people throw on the curb for trash pickup. On a corner, there’s a pile of sheets that really need a good washing. Across from the mattress is a dresser that’s just as old and as stained as the mattress. It has a large mirror sitting on it, looking like it is being held up by the many bottles of liquor lining the top of the dresser. Some bottles are almost full, others are empty. Some are knocked over while others are lined in a perfect row. There’s a white powder and strange glass tubes next to the row.
I take one last look and close my eyes. I don’t want to see anymore. This isn’t an office or a workshop. No wood, no hammers, no nails, no blueprints, no paint. Nothing. Mama isn’t building anything. She’s doing bad things for money again. Anger fills me. I take a deep breath to stop myself from crying. The familiar burnt plastic kind of scent fills my nose. I don’t know what it is but I used to smell the same scent on Mama when we were on the streets.
I quickly shut the light off and slam the door. I open my eyes wishing I had never turned the knob of that door. I was so proud of Mama. I really thought she was cancelling out the bad with the good like she taught me. But, she’s been doing bad this whole time. She lied to me.
I turn to the boys, who still lay asleep on top of a mountain of blankets. Bryan lands soft kicks to Austin’s diaper. I giggle softly. I curl up next to them, trying to erase everything I've just seen. It’s getting close to 11 o’ clock and Mama should be coming in soon. I’m going to try to sleep, or pretend to, so when she comes in, I won’t have to look at her. I’ll only break down crying then she’ll figure out that I’d been in the room. She’ll know what I saw and what I smelled. She’ll know that I know she’s been doing bad things. Mama will know that I learned that you can’t cancel out the bad if you can’t ever do good.