Maurice Carlos Ruffin
The first thing Pop do when he get home from Angola Prison is shove you and your little sister out the front door. He don’t even say hi. He just tell Mama to please give him a dollar for you to get huckabucks. Mama tell him he got nerve telling her what to do with her dollar when she been trying to pay the bills all by herself for twenty-three and a half months and five days. The lights been out since last night, so how about earning a dollar? That one vein in the crook of Pop elbow pulse like a fat worm. He say you know I love you, baby. He push past Mama, borrow a five from her purse, and tell you not to come back till the street lights light up. You and Timithea head over to the Johnson’s who sell chips, cold drinks, and everything on weekends, but the back window down and the curtains drawn, too, so they ain’t open. Before long you and Timithea end up where the community center was before it burned. Full dump trucks wait like big, dumb elephants. You never do get those huckabucks.
When you come back, you and Timithea sit on the back porch floor and watch boxcars clank together. Timithea’s hair barrette done fell loose, and you don’t know how to fix it so you throw down your bouncy ball and let her chase it. She a lot more fun now that she more than a honeydew melon wrapped in swaddling. Even more fun than that mutt dog you had for a day that one time.
Pop open the back door, run his hand over your head, and say we going. You ask where. Mama smiling, and that make you smile . . .
Just do what you told, she say. But she don’t say it mean. Pop grab Mama necklace.
Where the rest of that good jewelry I got you? Mama say she sold it all. She pick up Timithea and do that thing with her hand to check Timithea diaper like checking a pear to see if it taste good.
Pop whistle as we walk from the back yard to the front of the house. He toss the keys at you.
You want to drive? he ask.
Serious? you ask.
It’s Mama car that she bought with her own money. The thing got a spoiler on the back hatch and pink dice hanging like cherries from the mirror. She don’t even like Pop driving it, but maybe everything different now.
Fight me for it, he say. We wrestle on our feet, laughing the whole time. He put you in a headlock, but you hold that key tight in your fist.
But when you get behind the wheel, he shaking his head.
Get out, he say.
I thought you be taller by now. Instead, you just got fat. Your feet barely come down to the floorboard.
You don’t move, but just keep your hands on the wheel. A bug crash into the front glass. It flutter for a sec like it’s trying to figure what the shit just happen. Then the bug spin away.
Just around the block, you say. Pop smack the back of your head hard enough to make you fuzzy.
I don’t have time for game playing. You think I’m about to go to back to that cage on account of letting a ten-year-old drive?
Pop drive you to a couple of places round town. First, to the supermarket where lobsters chop at the glass tank like they saying help man get me out of this place. The manager there know Pop and say he can’t take on no felon. That ain’t him. That’s policy from on high. Then Pop drive to the used tire garage, but the men there don’t even let you get out the car. They bang on the hood and tell Pop to get ghost before they bust him in the mouth. One of the men come over to Pop open window. He got one gold tooth, but the tooth next to it missing.
I’d cap you right now if your offspring wasn’t with you, the man say. He kick the car door, and Pop shout, but we drive away.
You go to Robinson Pizza under the highway bridge. Inside, Mr. Robinson come out from behind the counter. Something crawl by, and Mr. Robinson step on it. He see Pop and throw his hands up.
I don’t want no trouble, Timmy, Mr. Robinson say. Pop frown at Mr. Robinson. Then Mr. Robinson tap him on the jaw real light. They hug. Pop say something in Mr. Robinson ear. Mr. Robinson slap Pop back and tell you hey little Tim you gonna be a sumo wrestler one day.
I need to make some money, Pop say. Lights due. Rent due. Life due.
Kitchen Sink Tyrone got sent to federal lockup in Mississippi, Mr. Robinson say. And nobody ain’t seen Jupe since Christmas. Jupe was Pop best friend. The last time you saw him he and Pop showed you how to crack open a steering wheel column and hot wire a car.
No, Pop say, not that kind of money. Mr. Robinson raise his eyebrow.
You for real?
Can’t a man change his hustle? I want to pay taxes and shit. Is that wrong? If I could sell my blood, I would, but I ain’t got that much blood. You feel me? Mr. Robinson pinch Pop shoulder and wink at you.
Your old man growing up, son.
Pop can cook, but Mr. Robinson kitchen full up. That’s why you and Pop riding up the avenue to where all the white college dorms at. You got hot pizza and breadsticks on your lap. You want to reach in and grab a bite of something, so you reach in and pinch a hunk of pineapple and anchovies. Who the shit order pineapple and anchovies? You don’t want Pop to see what you did so you eat the nasty stuff. It burn the roof of your mouth. Pop stuck a Robinson Pizza sign on the roof of Mama car. The sign keep slapping the roof. Wuk. Wuk. Wuk. The back of your head still hurt. Now your mouth hurt, too, and your stomach gurgling from the poison.
Pop park by a big house with symbols on the front you can’t read. Make you feel stupid, and you don’t like that feeling, so you make up a meaning for them. Crazy White People Here.
A boy with a belt wrapped round his head answer the door. He call back for somebody name of Charlie and a white girl come to the door. A white girl name of Charlie, but who look like a Charlene or whatever white girl’s names be. Her eyes open, but she looking woozy like she dreaming on her feet.
Hold it, Mr. Bill Cosby, she say real slow. I have to give you a proper pourboire. Somebody in the house yell out what no Jell-O pudding pops? The girl flip through some money and count off dollars one-by-one all the way to seventeen. She shut the door. Pop grin.
That’s an alright tip, he say. Then he yell. What you doing by my car?
There’s a white boy in a baseball cap sitting in the driver seat. He crank the engine, and the back tire spin before the car move. Pop a fast runner, but he only get a little way down the street before Mama car out of reach.
At the police station, Pop talk to a cop for a while. You don’t like being in the station, but Pop say it’s about time the cops do something to help him for a change. A skinny cop at the desk tell him they’ll look into it, but don’t get his hopes up. A man in a black suit call Pop name. The man look like a funeral man. Pop don’t look him in the eye.
I didn’t expect to see you back here so soon, Funeral Man say. You people just can’t fly right, can you?
Pop tell him about the car. Funeral Man snort.
Well, was it retaliation? What did you do steal from them?
I ain’t got to take this, Pop say, and pull you up from the chair you sitting on.
You’ll take what I give you, Funeral Man say. Causing trouble is a violation of your parole. I can have you back in central lock up before your kid bellies up for fried chicken tonight.
Outside, Pop walk away from the station real quick. You get out of breath trying to keep up, and you can’t. His legs too long. Your legs too short. He stop around the corner and shove the meaty part of his hands in eyes.
You shoulda punched him, you say.
You think I deserved to go away like I did? To prison?
No, Pop. They did you wrong ‘cause they could.
I did me wrong, he say. Don’t be a dummy. You know I stole stuff. They didn’t even get me for half what I took.
But you just borrowed that, you say. Pop told you a long time ago the difference between borrowing and stealing. Thieves steal cause they heartless and like to hurt people. Good people like him borrow because they need it more than who they taking from. Good people give to others like Pop gave all that jewelry to Mama.
I took a ring, Pop say. A real pretty ring with emeralds set in the side for your Mama, but lost it running away that night they got me. I did what I did and took my lick. But I need you to listen to me. You listening? Just because I messed up don’t mean I can’t be somebody else now.
It’s a long walk from the police station to the horse racetrack, but you get there fast. Chop Shop Alley Pop call it. A bunch of garages lined up shoulder to shoulder. This was Pop and Jupe hangout spot. Two dudes talk by the garage farthest down. One of them is a white boy, Baseball Cap. Pop start running, but you trip on the gravel. When you get up, Pop holding the other dude by the arm, but Mama car gone again. Pop ask the dude where Baseball Cap live.
Who? The guy say and shrug Pop hand off his arm.
Why you playing stupid? Pop ask. The cat you was just talking to.
Him? I don’t know him. He asked if I had a lighter, but I don’t smoke.
Your feet tired from all the walking. You been walking since Christmas it seem.
Maybe he already gave it to another chop shop, you say. Maybe we just too late. Maybe we should just go tell Mama. She might—
Pop pop you in the back of the head again. Everything fuzzy for a bit, but you don’t stop walking.
You better not cry, Pop say. And even though your eyes want to let go, you don’t cry. Pop put an arm around your shoulder. He rub the side of your head.
I don’t mean to that so hard, he say. Let’s go in there. You go into a restaurant and Pop order ribs and Cokes, and you tear those ribs up quick, eat some greens, and wash it all down. The table next to you full of people like a family reunion or something. They waitress bring out a big cart of desserts with dishes of bread pudding and pecan pie. Some of that would set the pounding in your head straight, but you know better than to ask for dessert.
After more walking, you almost home. A block party happening and cars are parked all around. Fancy cars with fancy rims. Hoopties with garbage bags over the back windows. Pickups. Station wagons. It’s like every car in the world here.
A few blocks away in front of a liquor store, there’s a car kind of like Mama’s. Only it’s newer, and the tires shiny like they was just washed. Pop go to the car and graze the window with his hand like he stroking a kitten.
Mama ain’t happy about what happen with her car, and she ask what kind of man get home from prison for not even a whole day and manage to make things worse. She say she can’t live like this. Pop sit at the kitchen table, next to a candle, with his hand over his eyes.
Timithea crying cause she hate the dark. You hate the dark, too, but you hate how hot it is with no AC even more. A light glow into your room from outside. The family next door TV on, and light and laughing come through your window from they window. You get up. You get the rod and screwdriver you keep under your bed and climb out the window. On the way down, your shirt tear on the hurricane fence, and you know Mama gonna kill you for ruining good clothes, but you about to make it up.
You walk back to where that look-alike car was, and it’s still there. You slide the rod into the gap between the window and the door. You feel the rod catch like you found the lock, but the door don’t come open. You push the rod deeper. Nothing move. You check, but nobody watching you. A car with a broken window worth almost as much as a normal one. You find a brick on the street. The brick heavy enough to break the window without even throwing it hard. But you pull the door and it open. You jam the screwdriver into the steering wheel column and something give.