EDITOR’S CHOICE AWARD
BY DEMeTRIUS A. BUCKLEY
Opulent waves raved on Fairport Street, like an old heartbeat pumping streams of bodies in and out of wooden crevices. In-between the shabby houses, the uncut fields came alive—a deep exhaling of some sort—swaying thickets of coiled branches, bundles of vermillion and jade-colored bushes in the mid-summer breeze. Some of the houses on the block were burnt to a crisp, abandoned by banks and government projects, but mostly meadow-ridden with wild growth tangling throughout the properties.
Milo was the youngest kid living on that block. He watched the afternoons from his bedroom window, the teens circling hawkishly near or in those bushy fields and accepting money from people in exchange for handfuls of pink baggies—the buyers jittery for a prize not known to Milo. He worried about those weary individuals, how they dragged themselves aimlessly to Fairport, sometimes with TVs or a shopping cart full of food or clothes, and then vanished into the brush as if they were wild animals awaiting or hiding or—worst of all—dying in the tall groves of grass. That was what he thought happened once when the neighborhood reeked of rotten meat and something else that smelled familiar but he wasn’t sure of what. Maybe chitlins?
“Thems just dogs dead. That’s what dey do before dying. They hide,” his mother had said.
Later, an ambulance came and collected the dead dog, its long legs falling off the small, mobile bed. But as quickly as the wonder came for the stragglers springing up on the block, it left and brought back a fixation on the delinquents standing down the street, who were stopping cars and bending into them with hands closed.
The oldest boy was tall, skinny as licorice, and black enough to make his salmon-colored shirt stand out; the other youngsters wore white tees, blue or black shorts, and multiplied when running up to stop a passing car. The group was tough and rugged, fearless and demanding as he spied upon them, those boys moving sharply on that block.
Milo would drink as much milk as he could to speed up his growth spurts, mimic the oldest’s stance and tug on his midsection, but his body hadn’t sprouted from its seedness since he was four years old. Now eight, he was still too short for the things placed high on the shelf and kept out of reach or view.
He could be friends with those boys, be accepted as lil’ bro under the streetlight; he could learn from them when he didn’t understand the world around him; he could be one of them, under the sleek night all in a crowd.
What stopped Milo from going up to the group—walking straight up into the fields, swaggered out and impressing them—was his mother. Anika. She set the rules for him to follow, and leaving off the porch alone or talking to anyone she didn’t know meant those boys that came and went out of those sweeping fields were off-limits, along with questioning her on why. Why?
What Milo learned, he picked up from his mother scolding him. Wash those hands. Get out that window. What you don’t know, you can’t tell. And her favorite: stay out of grown folks’ business. But those rules were like airplanes he’d seen flying over houses, sometimes hearing them first, the loud engine, before seeing the metal object appearing then disappearing into the puffy, white clouds, roaring.
On weekends, when Anika had company over and the brown liquor and Solo cups were out, she would speak loosely about his father, how every so often she caught him stealing money out of her purse and breaking all the rules she had set for him. Milo would sneak in through the dining room, hunch his little body under the kitchen table, knees bent inside his folded black shirt, and listen to them talk.
“I mean, we were good before he started snorting.” His mother’s hand rubbed slowly up and down her thigh. “We fought a lot. Mostly about stupid stuff.”
“For what though?” one of her girlfriends asked.
“He would put his hands on me if I didn’t give him money. I just couldn’t deal.”
The women sitting at the table repositioned their bodies, their legs all sleek and thick, falling out of different colored skirts. They smacked their tongues as she spilled her story to her friends. And after a while, the voices would blend with the smooth jazz of radio, the thud of glass bottles on the table, the non-stop high-octave laughter.
His father made his mother do things in the past, things she would say she wasn’t proud of. It took her three years to get clean, at least from the hard drugs, but what don’t hurt was good to use. Milo would hear those stories and think about his favorite superhero—someone fast, invisible—and run unnoticed out from underneath the table to his room, throwing the covers over his head to hide the searing tears wetting his little oval face.
A dark colored car pulled up across the street, bass booming out of the long trunk, all the windows rattling in the house. Milo quickly stepped out on the porch, wanting a closer look at the mobile boombox, the dark blue marble paint shimmering in the soaking sun.
The driver’s door jutted up, revealing a heavyset man sitting behind the steering wheel. The music grew louder. Milo’s mouth yawned, eyes wide at the futuristic car that vibrated the whole block.
He’d never imagined car doors to go up when opened—only in the rap videos he and Anika would watch at night on BET, she wearing a long pink skirt, he in a Roger Rabbit pajama bottom, dancing and singing along to Nelly’s “Hot in Herre.”
After the heavyset man leaned out of the car to dump what looked like crumbled dead leaves onto the street, he placed a clunky black box under his seat. He turned off the music, as if the bass from the trunk was coming out of him now.
“Lil’ homie, where yo’ momma at?”
Milo didn’t turn to call her. He kept his attention on the man unevenly slouched in the vehicle, rolling up the cigar he opened.
“What kinda whip is dat?” Milo yelled.
The man caressed the dark blue steering wheel that matched the interior. “Monti S.S. On 2-4’s…lil’ light somethin’.”
“I gotta snatch me one of those.”Milo’s eyes watered over the machine, thinking of all the friends he could have riding in a car as lustrous as the one in front of him.
“I bet all the honeys be all ova’ you—don’t dey?” He considered his mother a honey because at times she was so sweet to him.
Laughter jolted out of the man as he wiggled his way out of the Monti, his chain and watch flooded with black and yellow diamonds, a river of light blasting onto the porch. Milo squinted, then looked away from the sun reflecting off the guy’s jewelry—but not for long. The man’s round belly flopped as he walked to the trunk, his beard thick, his bald head—from that six-step commute—glinting with sweat.
Milo wanted to ask questions, so many questions, like: how can I make money? Make friends? Do you know my father? Are you…
His mother would scream her head off if she found out. But the man had answers, had to have been one of those ballers his mother and her friend Pat talked about when they were out on the porch at night, swatting mosquitoes away from their dark skin, remembering. They drove the hustlers crazy, Pat said, by breakin’ off dat nookie or neckin’ when they needed extra cash for bills.
Whoever that bearded man was, Milo wanted his car, his chain, his watch, his height, his coolness, his first piece of nookie or neckin’—whatever that meant. Milo wanted to be a baller, wanted to be exactly like the big man with the chain, but how?
The screen door opened and slammed shut behind Milo.
“Go get Pat,” Anika demanded without looking at him or in his direction.
“Ma, I wanna go!”
“Uh-uhm, I gotta take care of a few things, but I’ll be back in an hour.” She looked into the street, rolling gloss on her lips that smelled like apples but tasted like Vaseline. A group of girls giggled as they walked past the porch.
“Be good and we’ll go to the park tomorrow. I promise.” This time she looked at Milo with her childlike face, their resemblance more like sister and brother than mother and child.
“Dang!” Milo groaned. They stayed in a family flat, porch built in together like a concrete moat keeping the world outside and Milo, entrapped in his castle, from venturing beyond its brick layout. Everybody leaving as they pleased except him.
He knocked hard on Pat’s door and glared at the man in the street, free as can be. They were probably going to a party or a friend’s house where the block was full of kids his age or younger. Milo bet his mother didn’t think of that while she was standing there putting on that stupid makeup, in her stupid dress. Anika used to let Milo ride with her wherever she went, and her guy friends were cool with it. Milo would sit in the front seat while his mom and her friend would get out, disappearing behind a house or garage, flat screen playing some movie he didn’t like, and for a minute he wouldn’t know they’d been gone for over an hour. Maybe he shouldn’t have gotten out of the car and wandered that day, catching them behind an abandoned house, grunting, half-clothed.
Pat opened the door, her hair disheveled, one sock on, still wearing her pink rainbow pajamas from four days ago.
“Hey, sexy man,” she said, stepping onto the porch. Milo turned away from her, hoping the wind wasn’t in a sudden rush to gust. Pat looked Anika over, snickering at the black, skin-tight dress that showed off her petite figure. Pat’s neck jerked as if she saw something she never saw before.
“Bitch, where you ‘bout to go?”
“Make a run.” Anika glanced at the man leaning onto the trunk of his car, scrolling through his BlackBerry. “I’ll be back in a few—keep an eye on Mimi.”
“That’s not my name!” Milo gruffed.
“That look like two minutes from here. One if you do that thing I taught you.” They burst into fitful laughter.
Milo didn’t get the joke or why he had to stay home. The last time Pat watched him he’d almost had to call 911. She couldn’t stop vomiting—couldn’t breathe—and Milo thought then, as she pleaded with him from the side of the toilet not to call the EMS, that he was the one watching her that night. But he had stayed busy ogling a nickel-plated gun clinging clumsily to her hip, wanting to play with its texture.
“You got me, girl?”
Pat exhaled. “Bring back a bag and a Rillo. No bunk shit.”
Anika nodded, then kissed Milo before stepping off the porch and getting into the car. He watched them pull off, no sounds.
“You hungry?” Pat asked, pulling her pajamas out from between her ass.
He shook his head, but not to the question. “I’m okay. I’mma go lay down.”
The hours waned as the activities grew outside with the coming darkness: tires squealed on crowded corners, gunshots flared in those chubby fields, and arguments amplified after liquor bottles crashed into the cracked asphalt; voices tangled insidiously in the cool gust flowing through the open window, a coop. When he was younger, the liveliness of the block used to frighten Milo. Now the outside commotion commemorated a type of gospel hymn, a sweet lullaby like crickets or cicadas out in the old country, the good ol’ times his mother said her mother lived before moving to the bustling city in the 40’s, before crack destroyed Motown. Milo kept peering out the window every five minutes. He had good reason to be unsettled.
It’d been the day after his 6th birthday, the make-up day with cake—a surprise when his mother came crashing into the house, battered and bleeding like a newborn exiting in-between something or out of something, her shirt ripped off her body. She wailed loudly in the empty living room, stirring up the unwanted souls, possibly pushing her own out into the hollow echo before falling face forward on the hardwood floor. Motionless. Blood cobbled beneath her like a sponge over-soaked.
Milo, standing on frozen feet, was stiff from her outcry. He felt infinitesimal in a world he didn’t know. He cried. Ten minutes seemed like hours before he found the courage—grabbing towels and running hot and cool water—to clean his mother’s wounds. Blood clotted brown between her thighs, a few lacerations on her arms and shoulder. Goosebumps ran like braille on Milo’s small frame as he gently washed the dark, red crust from the nasty gashes.
Was she still alive? Had he waited too late, too long? Milo had to protect her—his mother, his love, his only in this confused world of his. After bringing pillows and covers into the living room, Milo sat beside her still body lying on the hardwood, his mind collecting, watching Anika ardently as if he could guard her from the bad things in the neighborhood, from the dreams she seemed to be struggling with in her daze. Her face tightened as she called her son’s name, but it was his own fresh nightmare pressed under his eyelids, that terrible, terrible something awaiting in the gloom of sleep.
The weeks passed and Anika got better, but she was still unable to move around on her own two feet. Pat did the grocery shopping and paid the bills. Milo kept the house clean and did what he was told. He was happy that his mother was staying home, spending time with him, and they talked about school, what he wanted to do when he was older and someday getting them off that block—some place better. But Milo’s “better” was wherever she was. That was two years ago.
A car stopped in front of the house, the low rattle of bass shaking the storm window. Smiling with relief, Milo picked up the dry cereal scattered about on the floor, a half-eaten syrup sandwich still in his left hand which he quickly finished, to peep out the window. He noticed that she hadn’t gotten out of the car yet—or if it was even his mother.
Smoke escaped as the driver lowered his window, Anika’s expression stale under the light inside the car. The driver’s lips were moving, saying something, before reclining his seat. Slowly, Milo’s mother eased toward the man, her eyes looking up at the driver before…Up, down. Up, down. Swirl. Her head moving with the guidance of the man’s hand—faster, harder, as he shoved her face down into his seat, violently, not letting go of her head.
The image burned inside of Milo’s mind as he walked away from the window, his fist tightened, striking the wall repeatedly before stopping to realize what he had done. That man was hurting her—and in front of the house! He thought about running outside to help her from being smothered to death, but the guy was six times his size and she wasn’t screaming or even trying to get away, almost as if she liked how the man pushed her skull whichever way he pleased.
As he glanced around for something heavy, swallowing all the fear urging to come out, the front door opened with its usual creak and slam that made him jump.
“Mimi! I got you a Happy Meal,” Anika said, walking to the kitchen sink, seeing the hole in the wall.
He rubbed his knuckles.
“I’m ‘bout to be seven. I ain’t no baby.” Then folded his skinny arms across the pink and white Care Bear plastered on his shirt. “I can take care of myself, shoo’.”
“Okay. Where’s Pat?”
“NO! Damn,” he fanned. His eyes began to fill with tears and he felt bad as soon as he cursed at his mother, but relieved when she didn’t notice. He thought about those kids in the nearby field, if they saw him whining like a baby, not helping his mother when she was in the most trouble. They would probably pick on him and not let him join their crew and they would know because of the lullaby in the streets.
“Who was that guy?”
“Nobody,” she sighed. “Eat yo’ food.” She tossed the Happy Meal bag to him, her lip gloss smeared to a faint glint, the same as the glow in her eyes.
Milo wanted to ask her why she’d let that man rough her up, shove her down into the seat every time she’d try to come up, but instead he said, “How come my daddy don’t come around? I know I got one?”
Anika snarled, “I’m yo’ momma and your daddy—what’s wrong with…why you asking ‘bout him, huh?” Anika demanded, her brow slanting. “Was he ova here?”
The refrigerator purred in the sought-out silence, like it had something serious to say. Milo was surprised Anika ignored his cursing and was more interested in his father stopping by the house.
“I was…I…was afraid you got hurt again,” he stammered, then stuffed his face with cold McDonald fries to shut his mouth. If he kept going on about the things that clouded his little mind it would bring him to tears and his newfound manhood would perish as quick as he got it.
“Baby, I’m fine.” She returned a smile before reaching across the table, grabbing his hand. “I have to…do certain things to get us by. I want us out of this.” She looked around with disgust, her hands clammy. “Dis hell hole. Remember our talks?”
Milo saw a strain in his mother’s face, the same face from that night, but smiling.
“Hell yeah. I remember,” he said, in a frenzy of bad words. But he didn’t completely understand the word CERTAIN—what she meant by it or how she emphasized it. Certain was expanding in the meaning of survival, and Milo had to do his part, too, so his mother wouldn’t have to get hurt in order for them to make it out.
Morning came. To Milo, it was magical how the days separated just by him closing his eyelids for what felt like a few seconds before waking up to a new day. He wondered, while lying on a blanket spread on the floor, the sun beaming through the vertical blinds, about the mysterious nature of the world and universe: stars and planets, where does the sun go at night, and the moon in the morning?
He’d asked his mother about the galaxy and the sun, and she’d told him the Sun and Moon were mother and child. That one day the child, the Moon, grew angry at his mother for not letting him go out into the night with the stars and flying comets. The Sun stressed to the Moon that he wouldn’t be able to keep up and eventually would lose his way back to their solar system. Anika then drew closer to Milo, her breath smelling of a spicy alcoholic cinnamon. She said that the child ran away to teach his mother a lesson, but soon after sneaking away, the Moon became lost in the surrounding darkness, wandering in the shadows of night with the other lost stars. Now, the Sun lights the days as she passes, searching for her lost child.
School taught Milo differently about solar systems, but he believed the whimsical tale his mother whispered, so colorful and animated. He felt like the Moon at times, thought of those gaping fields where the older boys stood, how they played in the dark of the cosmos, their friendship amongst each other, those lost stars.
Milo dressed himself, skipping the ritual of forced bathing. He picked out his hair, put on clean socks and shoes before taking off next door. Today, he was going to show Anika his big boy attitude, that he had swagger, too. He’d been working on it all night: his walk, his look, his coolness.
In seconds, Milo was standing on Pat’s porch, thinking that something was missing. Her door was half opened and Milo was conscious that no one was sitting on the slabs of concrete arched in front. He walked inside the duplex, glancing around as if he’d entered a gloomy dungeon, the furniture worn and stained. A sour stench wavered off the raggedy couches as the floorboards moaned with every cautionary step he took.
No one answered, only the humidity clinging to his skin responded. The house had a mouth and he was standing in it, the rug under him a tongue. He slowly placed one foot in front of the other into the dining room, a table littered with broken lighters, torn baggies, and a burnt spoon coiled in a funny shape that made Milo giggle. To him, the objects on the table were spy gadgets for a top secret mission, espionage where he could go to another country, be a different person. The way Pat jabbed herself into a half-nodding slumber or smoked out a glass tube and searched into the carpet for God—something she’d told him. Down on her hands and knees, her face grazing the rug, parting the strands ever so slightly.
What stood out on the table the most, its nickel-plated surface smooth, was that small handgun. Milo quickly grabbed the shiny object as he walked past it. Maybe Pat wouldn’t notice it gone as fast as he didn’t notice himself snatching up the little pistol.
He knew stealing was wrong, especially from family, but he told himself that he’d return it after he played with it a bit.
Milo’s hand stayed in his pocket while he and Anika walked down Fairport Street, the smooth surface of the small gun giving him thrills of confidence, a feeling of surety; he could be the gallant savior with the gun he gripped, the man he so needed to be.
“Wazzup lil’ baby,” a guy said as he jumped off his porch. “Lemme holla at you real quick?”
“Um-uhm.” Anika shook her head in the heat, but slowed to a dancing pace. Milo eyed the porch full of shirtless men clutching their groins, hooting and hollering at her playful banter.
“I don’t need another lil’ boy,” she said, her hand clasped around Milo’s. “I already got me one of those.”
“Oh yeah…check me out ‘den.” He pulled out a knot of cash and fanned it out. “I can grow up whenever you need me to.” That smirk on his face, like he was hungry for something impossible to eat. Anika pivoted, putting her hand on her hip, shifting her balance on her left leg, and smiled. Milo grunted, snatched his hand free and kept walking.
As soon as Milo saw Pat stumbling out of an abandoned house, her walk slower than usual as she parted through the tall grass, a lame caribou who’d just gotten away from a tiger’s lock, he ran to her, hugged her as tight as he could.
“Hey, sexy man,” Pat slurred, her lips chapped and barely moving. Milo stopped hugging her—the smell—then grabbed her hand, her other hand busy scratching her left breast, as they started toward the park. He couldn’t tell who or what was slowing her to a deathly daze, or what things held her captive. Despite her almost tumbling on top of him, he had an impulse to protect Pat. Tugging her limp body as she slung her arm around him, weighing, dragging, Milo walked on.
“Ya’ll hold up, damn!” Anika yelled.
The city of Detroit reconstructed most of their recreation areas for a few reasons: one was the old metal counterparts were dangerous for kids to play on. The other had a lot to do with the neighborhood turning into a drug den. In hopes of a change, the parks replaced the old models for a smoother exterior. It was a plastic fortress for kids, wood chips surrounding the area to soften falls.
At the park, under the plastic bridge, slide on each crossing, there was graffiti on the underbelly of play: Fairport Boys, RIP Loso, Easy G and Loon. Milo stood off by the side, listening to the teenagers brag about how much money they made standing on the corners, in those fields. One of the boys he recognized. He was the teenager with the salmon-colored shirt passing out those pink baggies, the one who the other boys followed.
Milo’s hands were clammy as he thought of how to get the boys’ attention. How long could he stand there and avert his eyes from the other kids before they said something?
“My unc’ out here eatin’ boy!” One of the teenagers fanned out 20s, 50s, and a few 100s. “If ya’ll want to get down, ya’ll gotta do what I say, show me you wit’ da’ shit.”
Milo wanted to follow the boy’s order, show him he could do big boy stuff, but what if it was a test to see who was fearful and submissive? He took a few steps toward the group with a gleeful bounce that made one of the boys cock his head slightly to the left.
“Who you?” the boy questioned, halting Milo. “Go play somewhere else, pussy.”
Pussy. Milo nearly laughed, his brain fusing and diffusing, trying to find the right words to say—a plan—as the teenager mugged Milo from head to toe. A few kids started to walk out of the hideout, into the sunset. Milo’s right hand, gripping the silver gun, slid out of his pocket, stopping the gang’s get-together.
“I’m da’ muthafucka dat gon’ take yo’ money!” He kept his face stern and just did what he saw done one time outside his window. The boys stepped back as the one with the wad of cash threw the money on top of the wood chips.
“Come on, man, just take the money. Don’t shoot.” The boy’s palms opened then pressed together as if in prayer. “Please, man, please.”
He had them, their faces all eyes and the air thick like pudding, it seemed, with all the heavy breathing filling up that little space. Milo loomed at the currency on the ground, then at the terrified boys hunkered against each other like marshmallows before heat, the sun waning in the distance.
Milo burst out in laughter, tickled by their expression.
“I got you fools. You should see your faces.” He lowered the pistol to his side, still laughing and amazed at his own plan. He did it. He showed them that he was tough, rugged; strong, fearless—a badass like them. But before they accepted his demonstration, still amazed by the fright it caused, the opportunity to be down with the crew, there was a gun pointed at him now, a much bigger one. Startled, confused by the other boys’ reaction, Milo dropped his gun.
“You should see your face and what I’m ’bout to do to it.”
The other two boys nodded grimly. The one with the gun in his hand lunged at Milo, but one of the other boys quickly grabbed him.
“Let me go—”
They tussled over the clunky gun, and Milo stood there, watching them struggle with grunts. A roaring thunder burst in that alcove and into the park. The screams came second, then blood on the wood chips, and at that moment it was like tub water getting in Milo’s ears, every sound washing away and getting lost in the tide. Stars were imploding, losing light and gravity. He collapsed on the soft ground, afraid of the darkness surrounding him, the one Moon got lost in.