June 24, 2021
I lived in an indestructible fortress to fear, nothing could harm me. I was a perpetual sentinel in my own life, always on guard. As a child in America there are rules that apply universally: Don't talk to strangers, don't take candy to strangers, look both ways before crossing the street and in most cases, "be home when the streetlights come on."
"Keep your head up," my uncle Junior ordered. He was 24 years old and by all means an expert at surviving while Black. "Make sure you see everything that's going on around you."
"Now, what I tell you?" my mother would ask. "Don't answer the door for anyone."
"I don't want you hanging around there," Grandma warned, "You gonna get yourself snatched."
"Boy don't be eating nothing out of nobody's house." My mother said as she slapped the sandwich from my hand. It landed with a splat. I though about rescuing it (God make dirt and dirt don't hurt). The three second rule had passed, or was it the five second rule. Too late.
"Whatever you do, don't let no woman cook you spaghetti." was my Grandfather's wisdom.
"You got on clean underwear?" mom asked.
What type of question is that?
"In case you have to go to the hospital."
Is that a thing?
"Come here boy."
"What I tell you about running around here all ashy?"
"Don't put that hat on the bed, it's bad luck."
"Don't split that pole—it's bad luck."
"Don't talk about what you saw, you hear? You mind your business."
"See, it's about respect." said Uncle Junior. He was a tawny man with a wiry frame—he wasn't afraid of anything. His favorite article of clothing was the wife beater, although he hated men who hit women. I remember him wearing one beneath a leather coat, a combined action that made my mother laugh. He was one of those guys that wore shorts and boots but despite his lack of fashion sense, he was the coolest dude I knew.
Uncle Junior had big brown eyes covered by half closed lids, a slightly pointed nose, a sliver of a mustache and brittle naps, that for some reason he attempted to comb backwards. Everyone liked Junior.
"You give everyone respect." Junior ordered.
What if they don't respect me? I asked.
"That's okay," he said assuring me. "Be respectful anyway." He considered his own advice and added, "But if they disrespect you, you respectfully put they ass in they place."
A car horn, "Hey June!" Frank Mack yelled from the driver's side of his yellow Malibu. Frank Mack had what could only be described as a weird as a "weird way about him" and a contorted face to match. It was said that he had a stroke. I thought he looked like Kevin Hart.
"Mack," my uncle greeted him, "What's cracking?"
Aw man," Mack whined as his car coasted beside us. "Suffering breathing."
"I hear that." said Uncle Junior. "Another day."
"In the white man's world." Mack pressed the gas pedal and continued on. I know that he and my uncle could have gone on piecing together incomplete sentences.
Uncle June? I tugged at his black slacks. Black slacks on a hot summer day. What's wrong with Mack's face?
"Stress, little Buddy." He watched Mack's car disappear. "Stress been tryna kill us a long time."
Buddy was what my uncle called me. He used to call me Beady on the account that no matter how diligent I was with comb and grease, my hair remained coiled and defiant. He had a funny way of saying "Beady" so, everyone thought I was Buddy.
My grandfather turned to Black Jesus, that is what he called pomade because, "It make your hair prostrate." However, when it was unsuccessful he questioned his savior. "That boy got that Roots hair."
"What you mean?" my mother egged him on.
"White man ain't gonna break that—you gotta cut it off at the foot."
Uncle Junior and I made our way to Sandy's corner store. Sandy was a Malik Yoba doppelganger, in fact, I am convinced that he was Malik Yoba. Sandy always wore a black suit and sneakers and if he liked you he would "bless you" by reciting Notorious BIG's lyrics over your purchase.
"Don't nobody wanna hear that shit," my mom would say. So she always sent me, with a note.
"Sandy." My uncle Junior spoke.
"Brother," responded Sandy. "How may I do you for?"
"My nephew likes those chocolate-covered pretzels you make."
Sandy straightened his spine, "Oh, yeah?" He looked at me and smiled. "Little brother is gaining a tastebud." His smile held a secret that In was supposed to know. He donned a plastic glove and began to place pretzels in a wax covered bag. "I call these the Keith Sweats," he grinned. "Because they have you twisted." He handed me the bag and said, "Now you gotta learn to savor the flavor neighbor. Let the chocolate absorb into your senses."
"Hey Sand?" my uncle interrupted.
"The boy just like the pretzels, man."
"All I know is when a boy get a taste for chocolate, it's only a matter of time before he gets the taste for chocolate."
"He's eight years old, Sand."
"Shoot," Sandy guffawed. "I was seven when Cassandra was born."
"Yeah," my uncle chuckled. "Her mother saw you coming a mile away." Uncle June put his money on the counter, "I got a strawberry milk and his tea."
"Hold on now." Sandy raised his hand and closed his eyes. A calm settled over him, I could hear his toe tapping beneath the counter.
"C'mon." Uncle Junior grabbed my arm. We were through the door just as Sandy began the chorus to Juicy.
Time with Uncle Junior was always eventful. That day he bough four buckets of KFC and we headed home for an epic feast. Mom said she wasn't hungry so, we put some in the oven for her. Junior turned on the television and found a re-run of Love That Girl. We prepared the living room table for our food, a sin.
My mother saw us preparing to defile her living room and didn't say anything about, "No eating in the living room." That was her rule, not only because "Food doesn't belong in the living room." But also because the living room was close to the street. Uncle June was a man—he was allowed to break some of the rules.
Our neighborhood had adopted a new fear—the stray bullet. Legend was that they could enter homes and kill innocent children. Therefore, a new rule was implemented. The "duck" rule meant that whenever gunshots erupted we hit the floor and move away from all windows. My aunt Zona was known to hide in her bathtub. On time she fell asleep in there and missed work the next day. "At least I ain't dead," she would say.
My uncle and I sat with our feet beneath mom's glass coffee table, stuffing chicken inside our biscuits and dipping them in gravy.
"I swear," said my uncle. "They put crack in this stuff."
I smiled. Looking past his head I noticed that outside, the street lights had come on. I imagined my friends hurdling fences and dashing through yards to get home. Minutes later and on schedule the rapid succession of gunfire welcomed the night. My uncle pushed me on the floor and crawled toward the window. He was breaking the rules. I closed my eyes.
I opened my eyes and saw Liono, my uncles favorite throwback cartoon character. Liono? I asked.
"Yes." He said as his orange hair gave a stiff impression of blowing in a nonexistent breeze. "The Thundercats need your help. Gunmen are storming headquarters."
Why wasn't he ducking? Is what I thought. My orders are to lay low and and take cover. I don't disobey orders. Is what I said.
"I know," Lions said. "I don't wish dishonor upon anyone but we need you."
"What do you want me to do?"
"But I'm a ninja."
I opened my eyes. My uncle was nearby, his face to the floor. My mother stood over him with tear filled eyes. "Get help!" she screamed.
I stood up, confused as to the turn of events. The usual routine was shooting, ducking, shooting stopped—back to life. I saw the dark liquid pouring from my uncles neck. His eyes were like that of a fish out of water. I remember thinking: You didn't follow the rules. I became so angry that hot tears fell from my face. Stupid.
My mother went for help.
There was none.
There were only rules.