My Southern Legitimacy Statement : Life was meant to be lived: for better or for worse.
Me and Bobby
Me, Momma and Bobby were ALMOST sent to the Promised Land in a place I called Our Hide-out. It actually was an abandoned WWII tuberculosis hospital just two blocks away from our house. People sick with TB coughed a lot, Momma said. There’s something wrong with their lungs. Blood would come out their noses and mouths when they got to coughing too much. Most people steered clear of that place. They thought the TB bug was still inside, maybe. I don’t know.
That old concrete and wood hospital was the perfect spot for me and Bobby to do fun things, like play hide-n-seek in the three floors of sick rooms and stairwells. Sometimes, it took all morning for ‘the seeker’ to find ‘the hider’. You had to be real quiet ; the place had a real-bad echo problem. If you ran too hard on your feet, the noise went down the hall and bounced off vanishing walls in all kinds of directions. It was a dead give-away for your location. Me and Bobby learned real-quick to sneak around in stealth mode, where your feet moved more in the horizontal than the vertical.
Me and Bobby didn’t see many invaders in our hideout during the warm months. But, in the winter, we saw a man or two curled up and surrounded by bags of garbage. They stunk up the place pretty bad, too, with all that pissing they did wherever they wanted. We steered clear of ‘em and made our camp on another floor furthest away from their smell. We didn’t play in our hide-out very often in the winter, unless Frank came home. Then, we’d slowly borrow some blankets from Momma and set up camp.
When Frank was home, I made up a strict schedule for me and Bobby to follow: wake up in the morning before Momma did, pack some snacks and warm clothing in our school sacks and slip quietly back into our beds. When Momma came in to wake us, I got the fake sleep act –mouth open and heavy breathing – to perfection and so did Bobby. We loved being stealth.
During one cold spell, Frank was home longer than usual. Hiding out in the hospital day-after-day started to wear us down. Our clothes became cardboard-like when the sweat from playing too hard began to freeze, especially after our wrestling matches. Me and Bobby took turns punching each other. The crunch sound was ginormous!
Summertime was the best time in our neighborhood. Me and Bobby didn’t have to seek shelter, like in wintertime. Every yard was our camp. We knew every inch of every front yard and backyard. None had trees, but the sun around dinnertime made the different brick buildings look like Momma’s red, brown and orange patch quilt on the back of the couch. It was beautiful. Me and Bobby would sit on old lady Mrs. Campbell’s low stone wall in front of her house and watch the brick colors change until Momma called us for supper.
We used to play our favorite made-up game, Who Has the Best Car? We’d see who had the best car of the next two cars that passed us on the road. If you won- the decision always had to be decided together-, you got another point made with a rock scrape on a concrete wall. The person with the most scrapes won. Bobby always seemed to get a beat-up, old mess of a car with rust falling from the fenders and a muffler letting out huge farts when the driver gave it gas. Convertibles always won. They were beautiful and had beautiful people inside. Nice. Sweet.
We knew everybody in the neighborhood, and everybody knew us. Well, except for that snoopy lady. Never knew her name. We ALWAYS saw her standing in her front window when we were doing something bad. Not bad enough for her to come out of her house, though. Sometimes she lowered her window and called us “Morons!” or “Imbe….Imbe”; it was some word that began with “Imbe”. Me and Bobby would just laugh and run off. She was a queer old lady, you know.
We liked most of our neighbors except for Creepin’ Charlie. Momma told us to stay away from him, saying he had problems and lived with his Momma. I can’t understand a grown man, like him, still living with his Momma. Just to get a close-up look at The Creeper, me and Bobby hid on a grassy hill near the route Creepin’ Charlie took to get his cigarettes from Jimbo’s delicatessen. We noticed his skin was ashy-like from smoking too much, I guess. He got to hackin’ so much thick snot in his throat that he’d nearly fall down. One day, me and Bobby got brave and said, “Hello,” just as he passed us. He turned around and gave us a gawd-most-ugly smile, like he was about to knife us. We tore off towards home and never tempted Creepin’ Charlie again. That was some scary stuff, you know.
Grandma and Grandpa were our next-door neighbors. Momma sent us over to their house on Fridays, right after school, to get an envelope. We weren’t allowed to look in it, Momma said, or else she’d tell Frank.
That’s all we needed to know.
Before giving us the envelope, Grandma made us sit at their kitchen table covered with a stained plastic cloth that smelled like grease from a barbeque grill. It was always the same. Grandpa would collapse in his wooden chair and vomit air, like he was about to die. Grandma poured him a cup of Java and we’d be there for eons, answering their questions about our neighborhood pranks and grades in school. Why is it that adults take so long to drink a cup of Java? I never liked the smell and it stays on their breath for a long time. It even comes out in their farts. I’m never going to drink Java as long as I live.
When the questions ended, Grandma hobbled to the kitchen counter and pulled out two cookies from her cookie jar. This was our moment of triumph: we answered all the questions in the right way.
Saturday mornings were the BEST days because Momma took me and Bobby to the open market two streets down from our house. It was a very colorful place, you know, full of vegetables, fruits and thinga-ma-jigs that you don’t see anywhere downtown. We would get there early, like 8 am, carrying our burlap sacks ready for those beautiful apples and peaches. Momma taught us how to choose a good apple or tomato saying, “It’s all in the color” or “You have to squeeze it to see how hard it is”. Momma was good at picking because everything we ate was delicious.
I would think, “When I get a woman, I’m gonna to teach her how to pick, just like my Momma does.”
Summers on my street were hot because there were no trees or shade, only concrete. Most mornings, we’d roam the backyards when the grass was still wet with dew and mothers hung out their laundry on clotheslines. Me and Bobby liked to explore other people’s gardens. A garden can tell you a lot about a house. If it had mostly vegetables, that meant the people inside were hungry and had to grow their own food. Most of the old ladies had flower gardens- I think they were rich. One day, an old lady with purple hair and a baggy dress came out of her house when she spied us making faces in her shiny glass garden globe.
“Boys, come over here.”
We didn’t run because we could tell by the tone of her voice she wasn’t mad.
“Smell this,” she said.
I saw her rolling a green leaf between her fingers, like the hospital bums do when they make their own cigarettes. Me and Bobby bent over to sniff it. It smelled just like gum or candy canes. We learned something new every day while exploring our neighborhood.
We didn’t go into the hospital much in the summer. We just had so many other places to investigate. We’d hear beautiful music coming from certain hospital windows, though. It sounded like people singing church music, but not one song had ‘Jesus’ in it. Bobby thought, maybe, it was the bums trying to make it big on the radio. I think some of our neighbors thought so, too. At night, lots of people came out on their porches to sit and listen to their rhythms and beats.
We played in our own yard, too, when we were waiting for Momma to call us in for lunch. Me and Bobby couldn’t wait on the concrete porch steps too long before we’d be running around the yard and chasing each other. There was a leafy tree about a ruler tall growing in our big sidewalk crack. I think it was the only tree in our whole, darn neighborhood. We’d make squealing tire noises as we banked the tree, trying to get as close as possible without touching it.
Momma loved that tree. She’d bring out a pail and water that weedy looking thing. One day, Momma saw me jump over and accidentally bend it nearly in half with my crotch. She jumped up out of her rockin’ chair on the back porch, like a duck on a June bug, and walloped me good. Later, when she calmed down and I was doing something good, like washing dishes, I asked her why that tiny, ugly tree was so special.
“That tree is trying so hard to survive,” she’d say.
Me and Bobby never really saw that tree the same way Momma did.
When Frank be’d gone for a couple months, I felt the true meaning of “Peace on earth” sung in church on Christmas. Momma kept each day operating the same way. Me and Bobby liked that a lot. We knew what was going to happen and when. There were no surprises. Well, sometimes we created our own surprises, just to keep life interesting, like turning on the water hose stored in Ms. Clark’s garage, just to see if it was hooked up. Water everywhere. Momma did a lot of baking of bread and pies– the house smelled really good- and always helped us with our homework. She laughed a lot too, which made us feel that life was beautiful for us now.
Me and Bobby always knew when Frank was home. The air felt electric. All the normal peaceful sounds, like the clanking of dishes or Momma making her tea in the kettle, stopped. It also meant me and Bobby got an emergency haircut.
Momma usually let our hair grow a bit if Frank was gone for a spell. Sometimes our hair got so long it’d curl down our necks. We were always pushing the sides back, just like the dancing greasers on American Bandstand with their fingers spread and heads cocked in a cool way. When Frank came home, though, Momma got us to the barbershop quick. She had our heads practically shaved, just like Frank’s. We’d look at our bald heads in our bedroom mirror and snicker at the sunless white skin following our hairline, almost like a halo. We kinda looked like angels, but we knew we were little devils.
One night, Frank suddenly appeared in the kitchen, all covered in brick layin’ stuff. Me and Bobby ran for our beds. It was too late to go anywhere else. I heard Momma and Frank talking in their bedroom while me and Bobby slept. Well, Bobbie was sleeping, but I wasn’t because I’m stealth, you know. You couldn’t help but hear ‘em. Frank was so loud any time of day. I could tell Momma was trying to get him to quiet down. Frank would yell and Momma would whisper to him, like he was a hurt kitten or somethin’. Both of ‘em carried on all night. I hardly got any sleep, no matter how hard I tried to shut them out of my mind.
Momma got me and Bobby up for school in the morning, just like she usually did. But, instead of sitting at the table drinking her tea while we ate breakfast, Momma was in high gear doing housework. Cleaning out the refrigerator. Mopping the kitchen floor when it really didn’t need it. Me and Bobby knew not to question Momma on why she did things out of the ordinary when Frank was home. Let’s face it, everything was different when Frank came home.
When me and Bobby got home from school, Momma and Frank were sitting at the kitchen table, looking like a serious conversation was taking place. I spied a sizeable brown paper bag sitting on the table right between ‘em. Frank had a stupid grin on his face, like he was up to somethin’ real good. You didn’t see Frank smiling too much. It kinda scared me and Bobby. I just froze in the doorway, and Bobby hid behind me.
Frank pulled out a long, heavy gold chain from the bag and put it over the top of Momma’s head and onto her chest. It looked too heavy for Momma; she was kinda a small person. Momma gave a fake smile- I know one when I see one. Just then, Frank realized his kids were watching.
“What are you staring at, stupid? Do you have nose problems or something?”
Me and Bobby said together, “No, sir!” and tore off to our bedroom and slammed the door.
We did a belly flop on our beds and listened real close.
I heard Momma raise her voice a little bit,
“You’re only home one day and already you’re yellin’ at your sons.”
“What? You don’t like my present? Is that what you’re sayin’? Give me that damn necklace. Give it to me. I’ll rip it right off your neck, you bitch.”
I heard some scuffles and kitchen chairs hitting the floor. I looked over to Bobby to see what he thought of this whole tirade, but he was covered up with blankets and pillows. Bobby never could take much heat. Me and Bobby didn’t come out of our room all night. We even missed supper. We didn’t care, though. There’s always breakfast in the morning.
Momma got us up for breakfast, just like she always did. She was runnin’ around the house, cleanin’ this and that. Right in the middle of eating my scrambled eggs, Momma yelled out to me to water her sidewalk tree. What? I never watered that tree. Bobby cleared the table when our bellies were full, and I filled up the tin pail Momma used to nurse along her tree. It was a real struggle carrying that load out the door. Just when I almost got the door latch open, Frank came out of his bedroom.
“Whatch ya doin’, boy?”
“I’m waterin’ Momma’s tree.”
“That there tree that’s growin’ in the sidewalk.”
Frank stopped me with his raised hand and turned to look out the side window.
“I don’t see any damn tree.”
“It’s growin’ in the crack. It’s not that big.”
“That’s no tree. That’s a damn weed.”
Frank pushed me away from the door and went out to the backyard, makin’ a beeline straight for Momma’s tree. I didn’t dare go out there. I watched what he did to that poor tree from the side window. Not one leaf was left after Frank tried and tried to pull it up. He never did succeed – a big, grown man beaten by a little tree! All that remained after the tussle was a stem sticking cockeyed out of the sidewalk. Not a shred of bark left on it, neither.
Momma cried all night in bed. I couldn’t get a drop of sleep.
I woke up by myself the next morning.
I poked Bobby to get him up; he jumped a mile high in his bed.
“Whatcha do that for?” Bobby screamed, all mad as hell.
“Time to go to school, you moron.”
Me and Bobby put on the same clothes we thought Momma would’ve picked out for us. Quiet-like, we turned the bedroom doorknob, making sure the latch didn’t bounce back, and tip-toed into the kitchen. I pretended to be Momma and fixed us some breakfast. Bobby had to keep duckin’ and divin’ under the table, coverin’ up his mouth, to keep from bustin’ a laugh. It was kinda fun playing Momma.
I spied that brown paper bag sitting on the end table next to the spot Frank owned on the sofa. It was all puffed out like and the paper was worn out from opening and closing too much, I guess. Since nobody was around, I decided to take a walk over and peek inside.
I thought, “There’s got to be more in there besides that nasty gold chain.”
I saw the gold chain sitting on top of some paper-like stuff. I reached in, all the while on the lookout for Frank, and pulled out a wad of twenty-dollar bills. There must have been hundreds of ‘em. I’ve never seen so much money in one place.
Just for once in my life, I was NOT stealth and yelled out, “Bobby, come look at THIS!”
Bobby, still at the table eating his cold cereal, fell outta his chair and scrambled across the wood floor like a crab – Bobby just was not good at being stealth.
“Woe, are we rich?” Bobby said and spat out a mouthful of corn flakes onto his shirt.
“It appears Frank has hit the jackpot somewhere.”
While me and Bobby were passing wads of cash back and forth between us, Momma’s bedroom door blew off the hinges with a bang.
“Boys? You takin’ my money?” Frank screamed.
“No! No! No! We’re just lookin’ at it. Are we rich or somethin’?”
I tried to laugh, like all this was a joke, and stuffed my bills in the bag and grabbed the money outta Bobby’s hand.
Frank disappeared into Momma’s bedroom. Then, both of ‘em came out. Frank first. He was carrying the pistol Momma kept in her nightstand. Momma followed Frank, trying hard to pull him back and screaming for him to stop. I noticed her eyes were puffy and red. Her hair was a tangled mess. Momma never looks that bad. Ever. For the first time in my life, I was scared. I lost all my stealth power. Everybody was losin’ it: Momma, Frank, Bobby and now me.
I heard a voice in my head say, “Run!”
I think it was my guardian angel talking to me. My Sunday school teacher told me we
each have one. So, I bolted from the house, my legs runnin’ so fast I couldn’t feel ‘em.
I heard Frank shouting at me in hot pursuit, “You damn kid. I’m going to kill you for taking my money.”
For the first time in my life, tears popped out of my eyes. They flew off my face because I was running so fast.
“Don’t kill me. Don’t kill me,” I screamed all the way up the street.
I zig-zagged in between cars to dodge the bullets. I didn’t hear the gun firing, but I was convinced bullets were flyin’ everywhere. I heard Momma yelling, like she was crazy.
Then, I heard Grandma shout, “I’m calling the police.”
It seemed like I was runnin’ for an eternity. But, I never got tired. My guardian angel gave me my super powers back. I heard police sirens off in the distance and thought for a minute I was finally going to get help. Three police cars sped past me and headed straight for my house. I turned around for the first time to see if I outran Frank. Instead, I saw boatloads of people in the street. Everybody’s yellin’; cop lights were blazin’ and sirens carryin’ on like it was a 4th of July parade.
I stopped and leaned against one of the parked cars, just to watch the show and catch my breath. I saw Momma standing in the neighbor’s yard with Grandma and Grandpa. She kept hiding her face in her hands and Grandma hugged her tight. Frank was surrounded by cops, thank gawd. His legs were kickin’ and fightin’ while they tried to cuff him. Wow, Frank in hand cuffs would be somethin’ to behold, for sure.
Frank put up a brave fight and never stopped fighting, even though the cops managed to get his hands behind his back. Down to the ground they all went. The group of men struggled for a long time. An ambulance sped past me while all this was going on.
I thought, “Now the show is goin’ to get real interestin’.”
I got a little closer, moving forward one parked car at a time, duckin’ and divin’ if someone looked my way. I finally made it to a parked car, which gave me a beautiful view of what they were gonna to do to Frank. The police officers needed the help of the ambulance driver to strap Frank on a gurney. I guess all that brick layin’ made Frank a force to be reckoned with. All the while, Frank was yellin’ every cuss word imaginable.
Frank was finally fastened down with five leather straps. Funny, only his head could move. Real foamy spit -not that fake stuff- came outta his mouth. Frank’s eyes were all wild lookin’, too, and his skin was red as a tomato. The scene looked like a horror flick with Frank as the monster. Sweet. Who needs to watch scary movies when you have somebody like Frank?
Momma, though, was wailing. I didn’t like seeing Momma in that condition. No. Frank was a different story. He was a joke.
All the neighbors in the streets gathered ‘round Momma while the medics loaded Frank up in the ambulance. The police formed a blockade to keep the gawkers from getting too close. I got real close to the ambulance drivers, though, by crawling under a car just beside them. I got a real tinglin’ feeling inside my body that made my hair stand up, just knowing I was right there and could hear their conversation.
“This guy’s a real kook.”
“Yeah, the cops said he tried to kill one of his kids.”
“Well, did he?”
“Naw, one of ‘em got away and the other’s with his mother.”
When the ambulance left, I crawled out of my hiding place to get to Bobby and Momma, just to let them know I was alive. Momma hugged me a little bit, but Grandma Hughes hugged me just a little too tight. We’re not like that, you know. Bobby was cryin’ like a girl, which was just so embarrassin’. We’d have to talk about that later.
Frank was gone for a while in another hospital. Whatever happened to all that money? I don’t know. I was just glad to get back to our routine again. But, good times don’t last forever.
“Frank is coming home tomorrow,” Momma told us at breakfast.
Me and Bobby didn’t say a word. We knew this was the signal: we were to be invisible or hiding out when Frank came home.
It was winter and the only chance me and Bobby had to be away from Frank was to set up camp again in the TB hospital. One day, me and Bobby were just plain tired of
feelin’ and lookin’ like human popsicles. We decided to try our luck at starting a fire to keep us warm. We gathered the hobo’s garbage as kindling and piled high lots of torn-up wood planks vandals left behind. Once the fire was ablazen’, me and Bobby- warm as toast- looked at each other through the firelight.
“Yeah, it doesn’t get any better than this,” I thought.
Momma came running for us when, I guess, she saw the gigantic flames in the air. We heard her screaming our names far away down one of the hospital hallways. We pretended we were firemen, trying to rescue some lady in distress. We pulled up our shirts over our noses to keep out the smoke and dropped to the floor army style. Crawlin’ like snakes, me and Bobby made our way closer and closer to Momma’s screams.
I could hear another voice screaming Momma’s real name, Joyce, outside one of the broken hospital windows. It was Frank. He’s calling for Momma to come out. He sounded like a drunken fool, bellowin’ her name like the coward he was.
I turned my head to check out Bobby’s position. He was right behind me, flat on his belly and waiting for my next instructions. I could hardly see his eyes through the smoke. I knew we were in big trouble now that Frank arrived.
“We gotta get outta here, Bobby,” I said through my shirt. “Frank’s here.”
Bobby started crying and shouting ‘Momma’.
I let out a big sigh and thought, “there he goes again”.
“I have a plan, Bobby,” I said and waved my arm for Bobby to follow me.
I really didn’t have a plan other than to find a way out. We crawled along a corridor and kept our heads low. The air was much better there. I heard someone making stepping sounds towards us. It sounded like they came from a stairwell. The stairwell! It’s close.
“Let’s go!” I yelled to Bobby.
Now, we were moving more like rock lizards, bending our bodies to and fro and using our elbows and knees to gain more traction. In the smokey mist before me, I saw Momma stumbling around and calling our names in a small, hoarse voice.
“Momma! Momma!” I yelled.
“My boys, my boys” she kept saying, until our voices met.
She was a terrible mess. Smoke mixed with her watery eyes made her face look like she was a racoon zombie. She came stumbling towards us. I thought she was going to pass out.
“Get down, Momma,” I said. “Follow me.”
All three of us crawled to the stairwell and slithered down the steps on our bellies. It was kinda fun, like sled riding, now that we escaped most of the choking smoke. We passed some familiar hallways, which Momma objected to passing until I waved her forward.
Since me and Bobby knew every inch of that hospital, I steered us towards a rusty door on one of the stair landings. On the other side were connecting metal ladders leading right down to a grass hill with some electrical boxes on concrete pads. Jumping to my feet, I tried to push open the door. It resisted. Heaved concrete and dirt stopped the door’s swing. Only me and Bobby could fit through the small slit. Momma could never get through. I let out a Frankenstein yell as I forced the door to open wider- remember Frankenstein could toss grown men and flip cars when he was angry. The door opened further, inch by inch, as I pushed and growled. Bobby laughed. He knew what I was doing. He remembered those movies, too.
All three of us squeezed out of the burning building through that rusty door. The air smelled so fresh, almost sweet. I’m never going to take fresh air for granted again.
We stood in the happy grass, a far piece from the building, and watched our hospital become one big bonfire.
As we stood mesmerized by the sight, I noticed a bare arm with a familiar tattoo wriggling out of the crack we made in the rusty door. Then, below the wormy arm, I saw a jean covered leg stick out, trying to wedge the door open with a prying motion. Funny, I recognized that black and red checked muscle shirt. I looked over to Momma. She recognized it, too. She watched like she was at our movie theater, waiting for the monster to stop its struggle with death. For me, it was like watching a tick’s legs thrash about underneath the rays of our magnifying glass. Eventually, the tick explodes with all its guts spilling out. Me and Bobby hate those bloodsuckers.
Meanwhile, the fire engines’ horns were blaring and we saw the cop cars’ rotating lights reflect off the houses near the hospital. People were running up the sidewalks towards the fire, too, trying to get a closer look at the show. It took about six hours before the whole place burned to the ground.
After our hideout was destroyed by fire, many of the neighbors gathered around in front yards and in the street to gossip. Me and Bobby hung around close to catch a few words:
“I knew those bums would eventually do something stupid,” said one neighbor.
“It was such an eye-sore, really,” said another.
“I was just waitin’ for somebody to catch TB again.”
“I hope the fire killed all the TB.”
It was quite interesting to hear what everybody had to say. It seems nobody really liked that place but me, Bobby and the bums.
Me and Bobby never saw Frank after the fire. Momma never mentioned his name or gave us warnings, neither. Neighbors passed us on the street and gave us hugs – which we never liked- and pressed coins into our hands- which we always liked. Some old ladies would dab tears from their eyes with flowery, embroidered handkerchiefs before closing their coin purses. Ron, the butcher, gave us extra meat when we picked up Momma’s, saying “Take care of your Momma” as we closed the store’s creaky wood door behind us. Me and Bobby made sure we were always out on the sidewalks or in the streets, just to collect more loot.
Me and Bobby grew up to be ‘fine young men’, according to grandma and grandpa. I think we owe it all to our playtime in the hospital, the fun times in our neighborhood and, of course, to Momma.