Third Place Winner of Voyage’s Summer 2021 First Chapters Contest judged by Bestselling Author Sona Charaipotra
The spoon stopped at the tip of my mouth when he stormed in. He didn’t knock or nothing, just came in like he does and the look on his face meant something bad came down. Something bad always came down when he looked at me that way.
“How many times I tell you cartoons rot your brain? I don’t care if they got it rolling for two hours and dress ‘em up with swords and guns and beards, still rots your brain,” he said, turning off the TV.
I set the spoon in my beans and pretended the TV was on just to be on. The DVD player hissed and I knew to turn off the TV whenever I heard his steps, but my mind was in the air from the anime. It started to snow, but I couldn’t see with my head down. I had a feeling from the light hitting the wood the night was blue and the sky was white.
“You got to be entertained, don’t you? You all skinny but your mind is obese the way you feed it. Ever think about giving that mind a little run around the block? A little diet of silence?”
What he didn’t know was I got enough silence at night when I couldn’t sleep or at school where nobody talked to me.
“Oughta entertain yourself by listening to your music when your homework’s done. You’ve been listening to the playlist I made?”
“Yes, sir.” I hadn’t done my homework. I hadn’t listened to his playlist either. I knew the songs since he played them around the house. If he quizzed me, and he sometimes did, he’d know I wasn’t lying.
“You need to be listening to it,” my daddy said. “Hear the stories in them songs real well. They got something to teach you, something you can’t get from books and cartoons, so learn from ‘em, let ‘em flow inside you, let ‘em shape you. It’s gonna be all the black you got left after what I’m about to say, you hear?”
“Yes, sir.” That was his thing. His thing was to tell me I’d be less Black if I didn’t act on what he said. He had me listening to Sam Cooke and James Brown and Gregory Isaacs and Curtis Mayfield and Prince. Prince was the only one I got into. I listened to him for hours. I liked his sound. I liked his look. I liked how he didn’t care what anyone thought, but my daddy said that’s not what the music teaches you. “If that’s got you all into it, Prince ain’t teaching you right,” he’d say. “It don’t teach you to wear heels and eyeliner like you confused.”
“This came in the mail today,” he said, flashing an envelope. “Look up, boy.”
I looked up and didn’t see no envelope, just my daddy’s big eyes shooting down at me. He had sawdust on his cheeks, a tear in the shoulder on his gray jumpsuit, and nuggets under his tired eyes. He looked way too tired for anything physical and that was fine by me.
“Came from your mama’s attorney. Says because you’re eighteen next summer, you don’t gotta be under anyone’s roof. She’s been trying for a while now. I’ve been fighting her behind your back, but you can’t keep winning year in and year out. Sometimes you lose and take the beating. It ain’t a knockout, you just done fighting. So she got you now while she can, and she gonna try to mold you in her own way.”
My face softened, my head dropped. My heart got hard and started to hurt.
“She got a court order, boy. Know what that means?”
I looked at him in a way that told him I didn’t, but I knew it meant something serious.
“It means you pack up all your things and get on a plane before sunrise. I ain’t gonna fight her no more, you hear? You need two paychecks to fight a woman like that in them white courts. Damn woman acting all deprived. She had her chance, you know that. Chose to go ruin it with you and me. Life is what it is, even if the one you with ain’t rollin’ with it.”
I sighed, wanting to cry, but didn’t feel tears coming on. It started to hurt more inside and showed a little on the outside. My daddy hoped he pushed my button and saw I got a little scared. That was the button he normally pushed, the scared one.
“You ain’t happy? You ain’t mad? You just sad and scared, huh? Just a sad and scared little man child. You make me say it so many times like I like saying it. She didn’t want you, and when you’re old enough to make sense of it all it’s gonna hurt real bad. You gonna hate her if you don’t already, and hate’s a bad thing to carry around when you gotta make your mark on the world. Like you oughta care she all cleaned up now and too good for plastic over her Italian leather. That don’t wipe the debts of hate. Thinking she Kamala with her power. She all greed, boy. Got more love for the dollar sign than she does her own blood. Ain’t nothing going to change that. It’s how her mind works, how her body feels.”
He waited for me to say he was wrong about what I was feeling or waited for me to say “Yes, sir you, right again.” I didn’t say either. I knew better than to say he was wrong when he was getting riled up, and I wasn’t saying “Yes, sir” again when I’d already said it twice. He looked at my scattered drawings, empty soda cans, and milk-stained bowls as if how he raised me wasn’t good enough to go out in the world. I could tell because he bit the inside of his cheek. When he bit the inside of his cheek and held onto it, his anger got hit with a kind of guilt. The kind that broke him down making him feel bad and too weak to fight. It did that sometimes, sometimes when he was beat from work with no rage to give. I saw it with his hand on the knob, leaning on my door, wanting out of my room.
“Take a shower,” my daddy said. “I don’t want your mama to think I stink if you stink.”
The door slammed and the envelope bounced off my head ‘cause I looked at a spider crawling toward me on the wood floor before he flung it.
After I showered, I stood at the mirror. I didn’t take a hot one, and there wasn’t much steam. I felt queasy from nerves and the mirror had a crack the size of my daddy’s fist. The crack had something to do with my mama, and it had something to do with what they were doing to him at work. He worked at a lumber mill by the river and shredded down logs with all kinds of saws. He said the work hurt his legs, arms, shoulders, and back, and only sweet Mary Jane could make him whole for the next shift. He said if he dozed off for a second, he’d be rolling wheels or walking the earth with air in his sleeves. He’d get mad when bossman cut his hours or docked his pay or passed him over on a good shift. He said, “Only so many trees you can cut before you out of a job, but one white man you can mess with before they put you away for good.”
At the counter’s edge were blood drops that went brown. I stared at the crack and couldn’t look at what my mama was gonna see. She was gonna see my bushy hair, my mushy nose, my fuzzy face. She was gonna see: you ain’t a part of him and you ain’t a part of me—you a part of no one. She was gonna see I was no man and wasn’t about to be no man either.
I remembered my mama being a small petite woman. She had long dark hair with soft shoulders, a round, mushy nose like mine, and her skin was fair. By fair, I mean light brown, but she could’ve passed for a dark Italian and my daddy said if anyone called her one she’d glow like she was special, like she had an edge in life. She wouldn’t want me to call her mama and I didn’t when we were together. She said mama made us sound poor, and we shouldn’t act poor. She told me to call her Ami, but I didn’t feel rich when I called her that. When she was gone for good, my daddy said “You call her your mama or you call her The Mama Who Ran.”
My mama was born in Kandivali, a city north of Mumbai. My daddy said she grew up in a slum and slum is what they call a ghetto there. I googled Kandivali, and I didn’t see no liquor stores or gun shops, no chains around no pit bulls, no cardboard or bars on windows, no graffiti sprayed on sides of buildings, no yellow police tape, no choppers in the air. I didn’t see no community neglected by men in suits with false promises, and I didn’t see no pictures of beaten down folks who gave up because the system told them to. What I saw were a lot of tall buildings, smog, and traffic with rows of cars squished and no lanes, like a maze they couldn’t get out of. They had cows roaming and children begging too, but they weren’t in anyone’s way where they’d get shot and if that was a slum, then a slum beats a ghetto any day.
My mama left us ten years ago. Well, she didn’t really leave us, but she chose not to come when my daddy got a transfer, and my daddy said that’s what it means for her to leave. We moved to the midwest in a broken-down city and my mama stayed in the northwest in the little white town I was born in. My daddy said she was sick with the poison that comes from a bottle, nearly killed everyone around her when she got behind a wheel or got ticked. He said nobody was gonna help her unless her truth took a few bullets in the mirror, that who she was ain’t the person she thought she was. So that’s why I thought she stayed—because she didn’t want to hurt us no more.
I got dressed and stuffed my carry-on with all the clothes I owned. I packed my sketchbook and my pens and pencils. I put on my hoodie and grabbed my iPod. I put all my books and DVDs on the table so my daddy could return them to the library. My daddy was calling out to hurry because he needed to lock the door from the front. Otherwise, he wouldn’t start the truck, and that old beat-up truck needed time to warm up.
The snow came down hard, about a couple inches on the ground, and a thick sheet formed on the front hood. I put the carry-on in the back and got in. I put on my seatbelt.
“You got everything?”
I nodded and we waited for a few minutes. When the truck started moving, I turned to the meager houses and littered streets and vacant buildings covered in white. The air was gray and ashy too, like after a fire. I thought of hell and wondered if it snowed there.
“Remember what you see, boy. Where you’re about to go is covered in snow, but it ain’t real. What we got here is real snow.”
My daddy got on the freeway and the snow flurries spanked the windshield and burst into little tears. For the entire drive we didn’t say nothing. Not to each other, not to ourselves. Sometimes he’d hum a jam, sometimes I’d talk to myself, say a few words of what I saw on the drive. Sometimes he’d flash a wicked grin at what I saw. Not tonight. It was a silence you could hear. A silence that made you know things ain’t ever gonna be right even if they weren’t right to begin with. My daddy didn’t even turn on the music, and he always turned on his music on long drives.
Light filled the truck and my daddy pulled to the side. The airport was deserted, it wasn’t bumper to bumper with cars and travelers coming and going like I saw on the news. There were a few cars, an Asian family getting out of a van nearby, and two big guys in white shirts and black pants with radios looking around.
“Your flight’s first thing in the morning, and they ain’t gonna let you through security until two hours prior. You just find a chair and wait. Listen to your music, listen to all them songs I got you. Listen, now. Put your mask on, put your head down. Don’t cross anyone, alright? They got places for boys like you and they don’t let you out ’til you old and gray. Mind your own and time will fly, child. You’ll be on the plane before you know it.”
I nodded and my eyes started to well up. I didn’t say I didn’t want to go like he expected, because a part of me did want to go, but I was confused about it.
He gave me a twenty and said, “Get a real meal, alright.”
“Thanks, Daddy.” I never hugged him, but I would’ve hugged him if he didn’t have a big sheet of plywood in front of him.
I had to ask him something. “You said I’m gonna hate her because she didn’t want me.”
“You keep saying she don’t love me. Why does she want me to come then?”
“You too young to realize folks hate what they love and love what they hate. They want what they can’t have, don’t want what they already have. Life beats up the mind and the mind does a number on you, messes with your heart. You too young to look deep into all that, and you won’t get a handle on it until you do.”
I sighed and looked in my lap. I didn’t get it. I waited for him to say something, anything to make me feel okay. He looked at his mirror to see if anyone was behind, or if a cop would say get on moving.
“I’m gonna miss you, Daddy.”
He gave me a glimpse and nodded. Not really a nod but motion to say he heard. I got out and grabbed my carry-on from the back. I waited at the curb, waited for my daddy to waive, waited for him to show he felt something. I waived, but he didn’t see because he already drove off. I stood there in the cold, my black fro and brown face covered in white flakes, and wondered if that was it. If that was the last time I’d see my daddy.