QUEENS Part Three
by Sayeeda Copeland
My mother’s last episode wasn’t new, or alarming. Heather didn’t understand how I was so calm, and not crying at the sight of my drunk mother, like other foster kids she dealt with. I was used to her having blackouts, or stumbling in with a story, a bruise or a load of money she'd won down at the number spot. That’s where she met daddy. The number spot was this half-abandoned apartment in a whitewashed building up on 148th and Amsterdam.. It was always filled with grown-ups cussing and swearing, dancing in dark corners or gambling. No matter how bright it was outside, it was always dim in the number spot. My mother would bring me in there, and all of the old men would give me dollars or some sugary candy from their pockets. They jingled the loose change in their pocket, and pinched my cheeks, all while hollering out the latest numbers they were sure to hit. They called me Little Chicken, because my mother greased my face with so much Vaseline, it looked like I had just finished eating fried chicken. The air in there was thick, as hard to breathe as it was to see faces through the cigarette smoke. My mother moved in that room real easy, like a black panther, smiling or ready to ask someone for the money they could lend or owed her. I never left her side, even when some of her conversations turned into fights. She would always hit some money because of me. Her lottery numbers came from dreams, fortune cookies, or me.
“Come on, gimme a number, baby.” She would lick her lips, smiling as I would take the dollar she held out before dishing her my latest group of numbers. The numbers I chose had no significance. I would remember street numbers, or the number of times someone in the number spot said “Motherfucker.” She taught me how to fill in the bubbles on the lottery paper, and how to cash in when she'd won. Anytime she got some money off of my guesses it was a good night for my mother.
We used to live on 148th street and Convent, right on the hill. I remember one of the nights of her coming home really late, banging on the door. This was not out of the ordinary, for her to come home this way. She called my father’s name over and over until he got up and answered. She stumbled in, holding on to both sides of the narrow hallway walls for balance. She didn’t give much of a fight as he took off her heels, jeans, and carried her to the bedroom. I popped my head up from the pillows, examining her face resting on the pillows next to me. Her eyes were red and glossy. She doubled over in laughter, swatting my daddy’s hands away as he tried to remove her blouse.
“It’s alright baby, go back to sleep.” His weary smile couldn’t hide his disappointment. His whisper was more for her than me. Her laughs quickly turned into groans as she begged him to stop talking so loud and to turn off the lights because they were making her head hurt. Suddenly she sat up, with more energy than she'd come in with, and threw her body over the side of the bed. My father, prepared, held the trash bin out for her just in time. The smell of beer and throw up filled the room. She groaned my father’s name again as he wiped her mouth and face with a rag. He rubbed her back and moved her hair from her face. I watched them until I dozed off to the sound of the bath water running. Those nights became more frequent, and always ended in her throwing him out, sending him back to his wife.
If I had any hope of returning home, it was dwindling by the day. Momma kept me busy. Between school, tap dance classes, weekly bible study and church, I was getting used to my new life. Momma was known as Mother Alston at our Brooklyn church in Brownsville. She sat at the front of the church with our pastor. She held prayer meetings, took us to visit sick church members in the hospital and did community service events. Momma prayed for the sick and caught the holy ghost every Sunday. It took me a while to get used to people suddenly breaking out into a dance, or fainting on the floor. There was never a warning before it happened. The ushers dressed in white would hold hands forming a circle around the person who caught the holy spirit. They would lay sheets across women who had fainted to give them privacy if their dress happened to lift up on their way going down. Others would encourage them by stretching out a hand, or dancing too where they stood. The pastor would preach until sweat would fall on the sides of his face and he would need a sip of water; his glass was sweating too. I watched both young and old call on the name of Jesus at the tops of their lungs. Women would kick off their expensive heels and run around the church, shaking and stomping the whole way. They would speak in tongues, a language Momma said only God understood. I thought God and maybe babies too because it sounded like words only an infant knew. Juanita thought it was a sight when I cried the first time I saw someone catch the holy ghost.
“Damn, they don’t have churches in the Bronx, either?” she teased as the usher brought l me a box of tissues to wipe my face. Juanita was placed in the teen choir and I was in the children’s. . We were responsible for learning our weekly scriptures and remembering to give back to God with our allowance. Momma gave us two dollars every Sunday, one for church as our tithes and offering and one for us to do as we pleased. I saved my dollars in an empty pringle can and hid it under my mattress out of Juanita’s sight. I figured I'd save enough money to buy a really nice outfit for when I returned home to my family.
Momma and Papa felt I was old enough to learn to take the bus home alone once I reached 5th grade. I had taken the bus alone once when my mother first moved to the Bronx. I took the BX 19 from Riverbank Park to the Bronx Zoo, where she'd just moved across the street from. So I didn’t understand why it frightened me so much to have to go to school alone in Queens. Juanita took a different route; her school was walking distance. My first day after taking the bus, I rushed in the house ready to tell Momma how my prayers were answered. God had helped me be brave just like she told me he will. I walked into the house and saw the two plants that sat in the window were knocked down on the floor. I dropped my bookbag and ran to the kitchen. I shouted Papa’s name twice when I didn’t see him sitting at the kitchen table. No one was in the kitchen, dining room or living room. Suddenly I heard a thump from upstairs. I could hear muffled voices as I climbed the stairs two steps at a time. I followed the sound of the voices to the front of Momma’s bedroom door. I pushed the door open and saw Momma and Juanita both holding on to something. Juanita’s face was drenched in tears.
“Let go, Juanita,” Momma cooed, as if singing to her rather than commanding her. Juanita looked over at me standing in the door. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to help her but I wanted to help Momma too. She cried harder, gritting her teeth as she tightened her grip on what looked like a t-shirt. She shook her head and tugged the shirt, jerking Momma’s body back and forth. I placed my hands on her arm and just gave her the look I always gave when I needed her to help me. She wouldn’t look my way, and kept her eyes on Momma.
“No! This is mine!” she jerked the shirt again, but this time Momma let go. She was breathing heavily and Juanita pushed past me and ran up the attic stairs. Momma leaned against her bed, and placed her hands on her chest. I grabbed the bottle of water nearby and handed it to her. Overhead I could hear Juanita moving back and forth in the attic. When she finally could speak, her voice was low and stern.
“That girl has to go.” She pointed towards the ceiling as if Juanita was right there. I didn’t dare ask what happened. “After everything we have done for her, she goes and embarrasses this family!” Momma lifted her body off of the bed, slipped into her slippers and got on her knees. She prayed for what seemed like an hour. I crept out the room, closing the door behind me.
Juanita was laying down on the bed with her legs crossed and her arms behind her head. She looked like she was on a beach somewhere, not just getting out of a fight with her foster mother.
"You can have my bike…I was getting too big for it anyway.” She didn’t bother to open her eyes.
"I don’t want that. I want to know why you and Momma was fighting for!” I was best off talking to a wall. Juanita was silent until I tossed my pillow at her.
“Okay, shit!” she sat up. “Tell her not to touch my things. I spent my money on this tank top, she found it in the laundry and tried to take it from me.” She was doing that thing she does when she's not telling the whole truth. She was avoiding looking at me in my eyes.
“And she’s not telling you that Mr. and Mrs. Gaines came over here to tell me how she is flashing her breasts out of the window to their sons!” Momma was walking up the stairs of the attic, clearly she’s been listening to us.
Juanita stood now in front of her bed. She glared at Momma, grabbed her suitcase and stood before the stairs.
“You did what?!” I meant to think it but the words left my mouth before I could stop it. Mr. and Mrs. Gaines were our neighbors. I played with their daughter, Michelle, sometimes. They had twin sons who were in high school, and who helped Papa wash his car in the summer. My jaw must have still been on the floor because Momma told me to get ready for supper. I grabbed my toothbrush to head to the bathroom when Juanita stopped me.
“Since we are telling everyone’s business, I swear to God I will tell her.” She held my arm but stared at Momma. I backed up and walked to my bed. I sat down, prepared for them to tell me I’ll be leaving soon too. I didn’t want to seem too excited.
“Tell me.” I urged Juanita on, her grip on me loosened and she dropped her bag. She sat on her bed and tears began falling down her face. “Tell me, right now.” I was now anxious, something told me this news wasn’t going to be about me being reunited with my mother.
“I went through your journal, Brey.”
“Why?” I knew that if she had found my journal, she found my pringles can too. She also read all the mean things I said about her.
“You remember you wrote how you don’t get why everyone keep saying you dad likes eggs?” She wiped her nose with the back of her hand, and looked at me.
“Yeah…why? I don’t get it.” I was relieved she didn’t bring up how I called her stupid and a brat in some of my entries, but still confused.
Momma began mumbling Psalms 23 under her breath. She always mumbled that scripture when she had something on her mind. She shook her head, made an about face and walked slowly down the attic steps.
“Brey, your dad didn’t die in the Twin Towers. He died because he had that disease. AIDS, not eggs. Don’t believe me? Ask Momma.”
I shook my head in disbelief. She was lying. My daddy died the way my mother said he did. Why would my mother lie? He wasn’t sick, he was healthy. I'd just seen him that August. The word AIDS burned into my mind and dreams. I would dream of my father. Dream of those nights he rocked my mother to sleep. I dreamt of me coming home and him rocking me just like that. I anxiously waited for the next visit I had with my mother.
She had bought me a new phone, one that she told me to hide from the Alstons.
“It’s for me to call you and talk to you whenever I want. Your aunt said she gonna call you later on.” I held the phone in my palm, examining its red color, and wondered how to ask her.
“Mommy, can I call you if I have questions about anything?”
“Yes, like what kind of questions? If it’s when you can get a piercing, you're too young” she chuckled, slapped my leg and placed the phone box in her bag.
“Like, how did daddy really died?” Her eyes grew wide as if she didn’t know who I was for a moment. There was no one else in the visiting room but me and her. I could tell she was grinding her teeth. She scratched at the mole in her right hand and I had my answer. It was so silent I can hear the ticking of each second from the clock sitting on the wall. Juanita didn’t lie.
I searched her face for the answer, but she refused to break her silence. After several seconds she dug into her purse, pulled out a lottery ticket.
“Come on baby, gimme a number.”
[to be continued]