The walls in Dr. Michael’s office were the color of sunflowers, a mark of optimism deceptively covering them like glimmers of sunshine in a storm. Outside, the pop of lightening and deafening rumble from the downpour provided a more fitting atmosphere. Dr. Michael’s ceased talking when the thunder clapped, as if paying homage to a God of nature known for playing unfair in these parts of the Deep South. Mom had insisted I stay in the room although Dr. Michael’s advised otherwise. I was only thirteen-years-old, but Mom knew I could handle whatever he would say about Pops. In our family there weren’t any secrets about who my father was, and who he had become.
“Winston is sick,” Dr. Michael’s said, flipping through the papers in his hand. “In the head,” he clarified, as if we didn’t already know. Dr. Michael’s had evaluated Pops and sent him to take a battery of tests while he spoke with us. He inhaled deeply, then breathed out through his nostrils, forceful, like steam gusting from a tea kettle.
“This describe his episodes,” he said
Pops’ episodes had become as routine as King Cakes at Mardi Gras. I thought of the time he’d holed up in the bedroom, refusing to come out. Any interaction by Mom or I greeted with stares into nowhere, the smell of Gin coating his breath like Tic Tacs. When he’d finally emerged from the bedroom, Mom stood outside talking to our neighbor, Mr. Bill. After all, how could Mr. Bill resist walking over to talk to pretty Mildred Sloan dressed in a waist fitting pink shirt and matching bottoms that snuggled her in all the right places. Peeping through the window Pops saw Mom smiling as Mr. Bill complimented her on how lovely the philodendrons and tulips had blossomed. Mr. Bill spouted off a few corny jokes in between, and Mom, ever so hospitable, laughed, while wiping the sweat cradling her brow, brushing her bangs to the side to do so. Mr. Bill’s pot belly quivered as he chuckled at his own wit. Pops had busted out the door, still in boxers and a T-shirt, running wild-eyed, full speed at Mr. Bill. Before we’d realized it he’d knocked Mr. Bill to the ground, alarming the neighborhood, screaming ‘stay away from my wife, you can’t take her from me, you can’t take her from me.’
Mom convinced Mr. Bill to not file charges, explaining that since my brother had died, Pops hadn’t been himself, and of course Hurricane Katrina hadn’t helped. Five years had passed since we’d moved to Baton Rouge from New Orleans because of Hurricane Katrina and the neighbors still pitied us like refugees.
Dr. Michael’s studied his chart notes, talking to Mom, words like PTSD and trauma spewing out like bullets. He stretched his long legs under the cherry wood desk that separated us. Black voluminous curls, with slivers of gray dotted throughout, spiraled from his scalp like a spider’s tentacles. He looked up. “Who’s James?”
“My son,” Mom said, her fingers clasped together in a praying position.
He looked at me, knowing I was Winston Jr.
“My oldest son,” Mom said. “The one who died.”
Pop’s latest episode happened a week ago. He’d left the house and hadn’t returned for two days. Mom didn’t file a missing person’s report. She’d said “To be found, you have to be lost.” When Pops returned, he explained he’d went to New Orleans to play a gig. He’d pulled five crumpled twenty-dollar bills from his pocket and placed it on the table as penance. Although Pops stood a little over six feet, that day, smelling like stale cigarette smoke, he slouched in stature, contrite, dressed in a wrinkled blue long sleeve shirt and matching navy pants with ragged cuffs. His eyes, flitting between Mom and I, looked empty, confused as he mumbled explanations about why he hadn’t called. When we’d lived in New Orleans, Pops would come home at all hours of the night after a gig, the fragrance of women’s perfume introducing him, the scent of Vodka seeping from his skin like crude oil. After James died sometimes he didn’t come home at all.
Mom must wonder what happened to the man who’d bought her roses every day the first month of them dating. The man who took her to picnics in the park on the Northshore, where they’d eat fried fish and fresh boudin with crackers, and drink hurricanes from the drive thru daiquiri shop where Pops would splash extra rum in his, and extra fruit juice in hers. She’d acknowledged long ago that Pops wasn’t the same man she’d married in front of a justice of the peace twenty years ago at a dump in the French Quarter that reeked of urine and marijuana. The man she’d declared to love in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, and worse, and worse, as he’d become.
Mom’s sister, Aunt Vivian, was the one who’d convinced her to take Pop’s to the doctor. For some time now Aunt Vivian had urged Mom to leave Pops, insisting we come and live with her in Baltimore. I knew that Mom had considered it, especially after Pop’s latest episodes.
“It’s something mentally wrong with Winston. Didn’t the same thing happen to his mama?” Aunt Vivian had said, her voice vibrating through the speaker phone.
Mom had glanced at Pop’s penance and then regarded me. The creased muscles in her forehead told me she’d had enough and was ready to take Aunt Vivian up on her offer. I’d held my breath, my face hard as a slab of concrete. She’d picked up his atonement knowing it wouldn’t wash away his sins. As she’d accepted him back into the fold, I’d exhaled slowly. I wasn’t ready to leave Pops. And I wasn’t ready for him to leave me.
“This medicine we’re prescribing will help balance the chemicals in his brain,” Dr. Michael’s said, jolting me from the memory.
“What if he refuses to take it?” Mom asked.
“He’ll experience dark places,” Dr. Michael’s said handing the prescription to Mom. “Some he may not be able to recover from.”
When Hurricane Katrina approached Pops had insisted we stay in New Orleans, even after Mayor Ray Nagin ordered a mandatory evacuation. Aunt Vivian in Baltimore, and Pops sister, Aunt Cathy, who’d lived in Baton Rouge, had offered places of refuge. The prior year we’d fled Hurricane Ivan, only to return to a few sprinkles. Convinced that would be the case this time, Pop’s had proclaimed that ‘we’d ride this one out.’ Mom hadn’t wanted to leave Pops alone who still reeled from the death of my brother James. Who knows what Pops would do all alone, left to his own devices, in the likes of a storm? He’d insisted we would be okay, and initially, we were. I remember Pops triumphantly beating his chest as if he was Tarzan solidifying his role as the king of his castle. His victory was short-lived. When the 17th St. Canal levee breached, we only had minutes to dash into the attic before water from Lake Pontchartrain consumed the house like a monsoon. We’d survived off of bottled water and a box of crackers Pops had grabbed. He’d hammered a hole in the attic ceiling allowing us to squeeze onto the roof where we hoped to be rescued by helicopters plucking people off like grapes from a vineyard. Pops had apologized nonstop to Mom who stayed unresponsive to his regrets. Daunting days tangled into long nights as we watched the ninth ward transform into the apocalypse. Everything from televisions to mattresses to bodies floated down Claiborne Avenue like dead fish. My classmate Anya who’d kissed me once and told me my hair was fine as a china doll, drifted in the water, looking like an eight-year-old life-sized doll. Her kiss had shocked me so much that I didn’t even realize it had happened until she’d walked away, shyly looking back with a finger over her mouth.
Pop’s friend, Dale Allen, planned to evacuate to Atlanta to his daughter’s. But Pops had reminded him of the hullabaloo made over Hurricane Ivan and he’d stayed. When Pops saw Mr. Allen’s body wafting in the water he’d dropped his head in his hands and sobbed.
“The decision to stay was ultimately his,” Mom had said, breaking her silence towards Pops. “As was mine.”
We gained the attention of a Coast Guard helicopter after being stranded for two days. I refused to open my eyes as they lifted me up in the rescues basket. Instead, I pretended that I was drifting on a ride at Disney World. Pops had promised to take me and James one day. I could still go if only in my dreams.
The day after Pop’s saw Dr. Michael’s he was headed out the door when Mom insisted he take me with him. I believe it was her way of assuring his return. When Pops didn’t convince her otherwise, he’d barked at me to put on my tennis shoes. We zoomed down the I10 interstate, driving across town navigating the Louise Street exit into the heart of Old South Baton Rouge, the neighborhood known as The Bottom. The Bottom stood shoulder to shoulder with Louisiana State University in distance, but was as far away as the east from the west. The first bus boycott in the civil rights movement had sprouted in The Bottom, a neighborhood that housed McKinley High School, the first black public school in Baton Rouge. Once a blossoming core in the city, The Bottom quickly became a rotten apple, destroyed when city officials built an interstate through its heart upending homes and businesses. Now dilapidated shot gun houses and run down convenience stores plagued the neighborhood like cancer. Pops parked in front of one of those shot gun houses. He reached into the glove box and pulled out a bottle of cologne, spraying two whiffs on his shirt and underarms. I recognized the outdoorsy odor mixed with the smell of the sea as the cologne Mom had given him for Christmas. He placed the bottle back in the glove box and dropped a mint in his mouth.
He smoothed out the wrinkles on my shirt and then placed the palm of his hand on my head. “Time for you to get another haircut,” he said. Pops and I mirrored each other. Our skin, the color of caramel. Our noses, broad, prominent. Eyes, light brown tinged with green when reflected by the sun.
Pops hands couldn’t keep still, fidgeting with my shirt once more, then my hair. Mom reckoned his twitching a side effect of the medicine. He looked in the mirror and smoothed out his shirt and hair, then reached across my seat and opened the door.
The wet air stuck to my skin like a magnet, causing August to feel more like a damp May. An eerie lopsided smile formed on Pop’s face as he knocked on the door. A woman wearing a red satin robe, tied around the waist, opened the door. A mass of curly red hair with black roots peeking through sat atop her head.
“How’s my BeASStrice?” Pops said so steamy the ss’s got caught in his throat. She let us in, giggling like the stupid girls at school. Pops hugged Beatrice, I’d learned was her name. Although we’d never met, she hugged me tight and said, “You will be tall and handsome just like your daddy.”
‘Living Just Enough for the City,’ by Stevie Wonder blasted on the stereo. Scented candles of citrus odors lined the counter like an altar. A picture of a black Jesus hung above on the wall. His hands folded, his eyes red as if tired of bearing our burdens and picking up our crosses. A bottle of Smirnoff Vodka sat in the middle of the kitchen table. Pops pulled out a glass from the cabinet and helped himself. He acted like the man of the house, handing me a soft drink and shooing me towards the living room. They stayed in the kitchen, siting knee to knee, so close their foreheads nearly touching. Mom was cooking a pot of Camilla red beans when we left. She’d told Pops not to tarry long since the beans were almost done, having soaked overnight. Pops talked so low his mouth barely moved. Whatever he’d said made Beatrice turn the color of her robe and caused her to flash all of her teeth. He glanced in my direction, and I looked at the TV as a rerun of The Cosby Show played.
Yesterday, Aunt Vivian had told Mom about the schools in Baltimore. “They’re better than the one’s down there,” Aunt Vivian had said referring to the Baton Rouge schools overrun with charter systems. “And Baltimore have some of the best debate teams. I know you heard of Central High.”
A year ago Mom had told me that she and Pops were separating, and we were moving to Baltimore. We were sitting outside Poor Boy Lloyd’s restaurant in downtown. She’d said it as she chewed on her roast beef po’boy.
I bit into my shrimp po’boy, and let the remains digest before speaking. “If we move I will kill myself,” I’d said. The words rolled off my tongue as calm as the waves of the Mississippi River, shocking us both.
“You don’t mean that,” Mom had said, placing her sandwich down, drippings from the roast beef fixed in the corners of her mouth. She’d tried to stay calm, but her trembling lips and water that settled in the slits of her eyes hadn’t let her.
She’d clasped her fingers together and cupped her bowed head. Mom’s prayers rivaled a Baptist preacher. She’d asked the Lord to give me clarity of mind, strength, and then blurted out a few unintelligible words, which I’d recognized as her speaking in tongues.
The next day she’d taken me to a therapist, Dr. Smithers, a petite lady with a distracting overbite, who stood no taller than five feet. Mom’s eyes were bloodshot as Dr. Smithers prodded me to discuss my feelings. I had little to say except that Pops wouldn’t make it without us. He’d barely made it with us. Mom never spoke of moving again.
On the ride home from Beatrice’ Pop’s explained the Man Code was in effect. “Tonight is to stay a secret between just us men.” The veins in his temple bulged. His eyes begging.
“Man Code, you got it,” he said.
My heart pounded as hard as his pleadings. This was the first time he’d ever spoke of such a code. “Got it,” I said.
At home Pops sped past Mom, his cheek grazing her stuck out lips. He went into the bathroom, closing the door.
“Winston Jr. where have you and your father been all this time?” she asked. We’d left at noon, and it was a half-past six o’clock. Mom stood a little over five feet. Her flesh carrying more firmness than fat.
She only called me Winston Jr. when she meant serious business. Otherwise she called me Winston and referred to Pops as Winston Senior.
I looked towards the closed bathroom door. I heard water running.
“Don’t worry about your father,” she said loud enough for him to hear. “I know you’ll tell me truth.”
The bathroom door now slightly opened, water no longer running. The whiff of red beans and hot water cornbread causing the hunger pains in my stomach to flip flop.
“We went to Mr. Eddie Lee’s house in The Bottom and watched the football game.” Pops had already rehearsed me on what to say. Usually when I lied my eyes blinked nonstop. Mom knew this and stared a hole through me. I attempted to glare back, wide-eyed. Had she asked me what game, I would’ve fallen apart.
She pursed her lips. “Fine example he’s setting for you, bringing you around his no-good friends. Go wash up for dinner.”
At the table Pops sopped his cornbread in the red bean gravy before dunking it in his mouth. Every question Mom asked he answered blade sharp. That weird smile plastered on his face, him nodding in my direction, thanking me for honoring the man code.
Pops’ father James “Jimmy Red” Sloan helped organized the first bus boycott in Baton Rouge along with Reverend T.J. Jemison. Pop’s often told stories of how Jimmy Red would say ‘The boycott in Montgomery might’ve been more famous, but it wasn’t the first.’ A large, gangly man with personality to boot, Jimmy Red’s skin tone matched the color of the clay dirt roads he’d grown up on in Avoyelles parish. He’d graduated from the historically black college Southern University and had expected Pops and Aunt Cathy to do the same. No kid of his would ever attend the majority white Louisiana State University, he’d vowed. ‘They act like LSU is the only college in Baton Rouge,’ Pops often mimicked Jimmy Red. Pops argued that when LSU won the national championship, and Southern won the national black championship the same year, LSU had received the majority of coverage from the local press.
‘You would’ve thought Southern didn’t even win a game,’ Pops had said. Pops believed the media’s treatment of the two colleges represented a miniature version of the city at large.
Anything of minority importance relegated to the sidelines.
Baton Rouge had flailed as a city until the early 20th century when Standard Oil constructed a refinery in the river town causing a prosperous resurgence lasting for decades. Now, unofficially divided into southern and northern territories by a street bearing the same name as the sunshine state, the southernmost part of the city near LSU housed some of the most affluent neighborhoods in the city. North Baton Rouge consisting mostly of minorities had experienced rising crime and a steady decline in neighborhood upkeep, largely ignored by city leaders who focused more on developing downtown. A city slick with more than just oil, Pops always said.
Pops learned to play the trumpet at seven-years-old. Jimmy Red hoped that Pops would attend Southern University and join Southern’s world renowned Human Juke Box band. But Pops had gone to Xavier University in New Orleans, flunking out after two semesters, spending more time playing in French quarter dives than studying. He’d met Mom in one of those joints.
“And the rest is history,” he would say, while re-telling the story with a grin on his face as wide as the mouth of the Mississippi River.
Pops had wanted me to take trumpet lessons, but I was more interested in playing basketball until I’d met Trevor Mitchell, founder of the Urban Debate Club. After hearing me read a book report in the sixth grade, Trevor had convinced me to give up basketball and join his debate team.
Pops would sit in the back of the auditorium, the brim of his wide brown hat tipped below his eyes when he’d attend my tournaments. He appeared sleep through most of the rounds, but he’d later discuss with me in great detail the arguments I’d made. He especially liked the debate on who was a better boxer: Muhammad Ali or Mike Tyson? Pops loved boxing. He often argued with his friends, contending Ali’s speed and defense overshadowed Tyson’s power and menace. He knew I’d used some of his views and had grinned so wide I could see his molars.
Unlike our competitors who’d practiced debating flimsy current events such as ‘do beauty pageants do more harm than good?’ or ‘should certain foods have warning labels,’ our team argued topics such as ‘who was to blame for the inefficient handling of Hurricane Katrina: local officials or George W. Bush? Or was it necessary to turn the schools over to the state after the hurricane, or should it have remained under local supervision?’
Although Trevor taught American History, he was also a licensed counselor and could understand what I was saying, even when words escaped me. Usually it was after one of Pops episodes. Trevor would slice through the silence telling stories about his boys, seven and nine years- old. He’d talk of their trips to Disneyland or Southern University football games. I remember Pops, James and I going to the Bayou Classic, the famous football game between Southern and Grambling State in New Orleans. Pops loved the battle of the bands, the halftime showdown between the rivals, always reminiscing on the times he’d gone with Jimmy Red.
Once, I’d asked Trevor if he’d established a Man Code with his sons. His eye lids had tightened, his lips pressed together when I’d explained the meaning. He’d switched into counselor mode, persistent with questions about the secrets Pops and I shared, becoming frustrated when I didn’t answer.
Considered handsome by most girl’s accounts, showed by the silliness they’d display when finding out he would be their teacher, the tattoo on his left forearm read survivor.
“You ready for nationals, son?” Trevor asked. He called the boys on his team son.
He and I were in the practice room. I was one of two members from the team chosen to compete at the national tournament in Atlanta three weeks away.
“We could have it today,” I said half-bragging. I had proven to be a worthy debater. I was only in the seventh grade and private high schools and colleges were scouting me.
“I like that confidence young man,” Trevor said slapping me playfully on my back.
When I’d joined the team, he’d given me a stack of books to read written by the likes of James Baldwin and Malcolm X, Shakespeare and Tolstoy, the purpose he’d said to expand my mind and vocabulary. Pictures of famous philosophers including Plato and Aristotle, and the likes of Nelson Mandela, Marcus Garvey, Steve Biko, and Malcom X covered the walls in the practice room.
During practice Trevor liked to pitch a topic, one he’d have me research prior. Today it was if juveniles should be tried as adults. He beckoned for me to stand straight and pretend as if I was speaking to an audience.
“Just because a kid committed a crime doesn’t mean it will lead to a life of delinquency,” I said flipping through index cards, reciting facts from research and memory as if I was spitting fire. Trevor smiled. I knew I had made him proud. I spoke of my friend Bobby. An A student whose life changed after his parents divorced, and his father moved to Houston. He hung out with the wrong crowd and ended up in a gang. At fifteen-years-old he robbed and shot a rival gang member. The guy lived, and Bobby was charged with aggravated robbery, attempted murder, and possession of drugs. I argued that if his father had stayed in his life, maybe things would’ve turned out different, reasoning that with the right rehabilitation measures he could still become a productive citizen.
I took mental notes as Trevor opposed me. Speaking as eloquent as Barak Obama with the poeticism of Tupac Shakur, he argued that a crime is still a crime no matter the age of the perpetrator. He’d cited an equally compelling example of a teenaged friend who’d murdered a mother of three in cold blood over a dare. The friend, tried as an adult, received life in prison. “Rightly so,” Trevor had said, nodding to a fake crowd for emphasis, “Rightly so.”
On the ride home Trevor and I listened to Max 94.1 radio station, nodding our heads to All I Do Is Win by DJ Khaled. Pops usually played CD’s of Thelonious Monk or Charles Mingus when in the car. Or he kept the station on Q106.5 which played everything from melodious rhythm tunes to hard core bluesman such as Bobby “Blue” Bland. Trevor pulled into the driveway, hugging me as I exited the car. “Take care son,” he whispered in my ear.
Pop’s image reflected in the front window of the house. He pulled the curtain half back. A Newport cigarette dangled from his mouth, and he wore a white sleeveless T-shirt, the one he’d referred to as a wife beater.
When I opened the door the aroma of a ‘poor man’s gumbo greeted me. Typically the creole dish was chock full of fresh seafood like shrimp and crab, and oysters. But when money was scarce Mom substituted the seafood with chicken and sausage instead. The other day I’d overheard Mom tell Aunt Vivian that Pop’s had stopped taking his medicine. “It might be best for us to come that way,” she’d told Aunt Vivian, refusing to meet my stare.
“Why didn’t you call me to pick you up?” Pops said, cracking open a Bud Light. Based on his glassy eyes, and heavy tongue, I could tell it wasn’t his first.
Trevor always dropped me off after practice. I reminded him of that.
“Next time call me,” he said. He punched his chest for emphasis.
Mom glanced in his direction and then filled the bowls with steaming rice before saturating them with gumbo. She set crackers on the table. Even though she wore no makeup, except for shiny pink lip gloss, Mom radiated beauty. She worked as a baker’s assistant, taking on extra shifts, going in at seven in the morning, sometimes working eleven or twelve hours.
Of late she’d hinted for Pops to apply for disability. Pops hadn’t been able to keep steady employment, due to his constant quitting to take a gig somewhere. At least it would provide income, she’d reasoned, and since he’d gotten an official diagnosis of PTSD, the paperwork should be hassle free.
“Who the hell disabled?” Pop’s had yelled. To prove a point he’d taken his medicine and emptied the pills in the garbage can, yelling “I don’t need this shit.”
Mom had tried to grab as many as she could before they’d landed in the trash. It hadn’t helped that on that same day the local news had reported an officer had killed a black boy on Florida Street. Any shooting of a black man by a cop brought up grim memories of James.
I ate my gumbo while listening to the music from the AM 1460 gospel station Mom kept it on. A pleasant breeze circulated through the window screens, carrying the smell of fresh cut grass and the melody of crickets with it.
“You talked to Cathy yet?” Mom asked Pops.
The muscles in his face tightened as he crumbled crackers in his gumbo.
“What did she say?” Mom asked, her voice anxious.
“What she always say?” Pops said, placing a spoonful of food in his mouth, then chasing it with a swig of beer.
“When you going?” Mom asked.
“When I damn well please,” was Pops reply.
The following day Pops and I walked up Aunt Cathy’s driveway as beads of sweat dotted his face, although fall had now ushered temperatures languishing in the seventies. Aunt Cathy lived in the Plantation Trace subdivision, off of Highland Road, a stone’s throw from Louisiana State University. She opened the door and hugged me as if both of our lives depended on it. She wore sweatpants comfortably fitting her full figure, and an oversized LSU T-shirt. Like Pops, she stood tall, square shouldered.
“Hey Brother,” she said to Pops, casually rubbing his shoulder. Her black, afro hair twisted out into springy coils. A gray spot sprouted in the front like a patch of snow on otherwise green grass. Dimples so deep they looked like carvings set on both sides of her cheek. She focused her attention on me, commenting on how handsome and tall I’d gotten, jabbering non-stop, asking about everything from the debate team, to girls, to school, barely waiting for an answer before moving to the next question. Pops took in the place as if his first time there. His eyes landed on a painting in the living room of Aunt Cathy that my brother James had painted. She’d framed it years ago telling James, then ten-years-old, that it would be worth money one day. In the picture her soft curly afro flourished. Her dimples, looked deep and magical, transporting you into her soul. I envisioned Pops removing it from the frame, touching, even smelling it. Aunt Cathy would understand. That’s the only painting we had left from James, the other’s destroyed in the hurricane.
Self-taught, he’d started painting at seven-years-old, the same age Pop’s had taken up the trumpet, Pop’s had always boasted. By the time James was twelve, patrons were commissioning him for his work. James had specialized in making your imperfections perfect. In his paintings the mole on Mom’s right cheek became regal, the scar under Pops eye mysterious.
A week after James’ twelfth birthday he’d went outside to play with his friend David, who’d lived at the end of Claiborne Street. On the way out the door, he’d hugged me and kissed the birthmark on my forehead. Usually his only form of affection towards me was a punch in the arm. He never made it to David’s. When we’d arrived at the scene, two blocks from the house, James’ looked as if he was sleeping, his body draped by a white sheet, lay in the middle of Claiborne Avenue. Sirens and Mom’s screams morphed into one. Pops fought through the army of officers and yellow tape to get to James’ blood soaked body. We’d learned that a police officer had stopped James because he fit the description of a young black male who’d just robbed a store. When James tried to run home, the officer shot him in the back, never indicted for the murder.
Pops eyes shifted across the rest of Aunt Cathy’s place. Although she’d appeased Jimmy Red before he’d died by getting her bachelor’s degree from Southern, Aunt Cathy had gotten her masters and law degrees from LSU. Her house could’ve served as an LSU exhibition. Her degrees adorned the wall like cake toppings. Purple and gold knick knacks graced open spaces along with pictures commemorating LSU’s national championships.
“Jimmy Red is turning over in his grave,” Pops said to Aunt Cathy, shaking his head staring at the purple and gold spectacle.
Aunt Cathy glared back at him. “Yes he is,” she said emphasizing each word, eyeing Pops top to bottom.
A dog no bigger than my forearm greeted us with a growl better suited on a pit bull. Aunt Cathy smiled and nuzzled the beagle she called Tyrone. The wood floors gleamed as if newly waxed. Everything from African art to family pictures hung in perfect symmetry in the living and dining rooms. The cream-colored furniture bore no stains, the pillows on the sofa looking untouched. Mom had always complimented Aunt Cathy on her tidiness. Pops would look as if he’d bitten into a lemon.
“I bet the areas you can’t see are a mess,” he always told Mom on the ride home.
“At least she has the decency to hide her junk,” Mom would say back, scowling at Pops, “unlike some who leave theirs wide open for the world to see.”
Aunt Cathy had picked up Chinese takeout, insisting we help ourselves. She sat plates on the wooden kitchen table, topping glasses with ice and Coca-Cola.
“You been taking care of yourself, Brother?” She said, digging her fork into the shrimp fried rice. No doubt, Mom had given her the latest on Pop’s episodes.
Pops hadn’t come for food or small talk, but knew it was the price he’d have to pay.
“As well as I can,” he said, adding, “Could always be better.”
She waited for him to ask how she was doing. When he didn’t she said, “I’m good, business is good.” He didn’t have to ask. He knew how Aunt Cathy was doing. With her fancy lawyer friends. Always in the paper’s society section, attending board meetings and whatnot at LSU. Kissing white folks behinds every chance she got. Yes, she was doing just fine.
Appetites gave way to silence until Aunt Cathy said, “Remember how Mom would be so
excited to see us when we visited her at Oakwood?”
I looked at the photo of Pops, Aunt Cathy, Jimmy Red and my grandma Maggie that hung on the wall. Pops never spoke of his mother.
Aunt Cathy pulled a pan of banana pudding from the refrigerator and sat it on the table.
“Remember when you meddled the man at Oakwood who spoke in tongues nonstop and Daddy made you apologize to him back by speaking in tongues to make sure he understood you?” Aunt Cathy teared up from laughing so hard. “The made up gibberish that came out of your mouth I still remember to this day.”
Pop’s jaw went slack, his lips forming into a smile, at the memory.
Oakwood Hospital, located right outside of Baton Rouge, I’d learned was a hospital that people with mental problems went for treatment. The hospital Grandma Maggie had died in. The hospital where people went in and never came out.
“I was ten,” Aunt Cathy said, “so you must have been…”
“Thirteen.” Pops said, looking at me, his smile fading.
Aunt Cathy walked to the cabinet and returned with three bowls, placing nice helpings of banana pudding in each. “Then if we got back to Baton Rouge in time Jimmy Red would take us to Fun Fair Park,” she said.
“What was Pops like as a kid,” I asked dipping my spoon into the pudding.
She looked at Pops. Her face lined with confusion. “He argued, well debated everything, even as a kid,” she said. “He should’ve been a lawyer.”
Pop’s face hardened again.
“If you said the sky was blue he’d prove it was red. Or if you hated cats he’d find a million reasons you should love them.” She piled more banana pudding in her bowl. I guess you can say you got your debate skills honestly.” She chewed the pudding as if pondering what to say next. “He always acted as if the world was against him, but so did Mom.” She hunched her shoulders. “We never knew why.”
Pops scrunched the muscles his face, looking as if he’d burst a blood vessel. I finished the last eggroll, washing it down with a gulp of coke, deliberately making a fake mustache from the liquid.
Aunt Cathy reached into her purse and pulled out four one-hundred dollar bills, placing them in the palm of Pop’s hand. She placed hers on top of his and squeezed it tight.
“We gonna get this back to you in a weeks’ time,” Pops said, removing his hand from Aunt Cathy’s embrace. “I got a gig coming up this weekend.”
“I don’t need it back,” she said.
Pops frowned. He’d never paid her back, but she didn’t have to be so got damn smug about not needing it, I’d supposed him thinking.
“You’re going to get it back,” he said, his voice rising an octave. “Gigs in Baton Rouge not like they are in New Orleans. Nobody hires trumpet players.”
Aunt Cathy rolled her eyes. “I have a friend that works at Exxon Chemical Plant,” she said. “I can make some calls.”
Once, Pop’s had said that New Orleans smelled of energy, and guilty pleasures, and boudin.
“What does Baton Rouge smell like?” I’d asked.
“Purple and gold,” he’d said. “And oil.”
Pops cut his eyes at Aunt Cathy. Having to borrow money was humiliating enough. He was the big brother who should’ve been helping her out, not the other way around.
“I already put in an application at the casino.” He drank the coke in his glass in one swallow.
“Casino money doesn’t compare to oil money,” Aunt Cathy said. “Mildred told me she working at the bakery ten, twelve hours a day now.”
Pops let the sting of what Aunt Cathy said digest before saying, “You got a man yet other than Tyrone?”
Aunt Cathy bit her lip in anger. Pops always told Mom if Aunt Cathy would get the stick out of her ass and learn how to have some fun she could keep a man.
Pops stood. He hadn’t planned to stay this long.
Aunt Cathy embraced me. She turned to Pops. “Good to see you, Brother,” she said, hugging him. “You’re looking good.”
As Pops walked out the door, to no one in particular, she said, “Then again, looks can be deceiving.”
At home Pops handed Aunt Cathy’s crisp hundred-dollar bills to Mom. Relief flooded her face as she’d tucked away the money she would hand over to the landlord in her purse.
“What’s all this?” Pop’s asked. Mom and my clothes were stacked in piles across the living room.
“Spring cleaning,” Mom said, averting her eyes from anyone’s gaze.
“In September?” Pop’s asked.
“Never too late to start,” Mom said. She turned to me. “How was your visit sweetie?”
I glanced at our belongings, neatly folded in stacks, and then noticed the suitcases tucked away in the corner. When Pops walked into the bedroom, I said, “I’m not going anywhere,” my voice occupying a bass I didn’t know existed.
Mom stood in front of me. Her gaze, solid, distant.
“I’m glad you saw Cathy,” she said. “You need to visit your aunts more often.”
The next day as Calvin, my teammate and I, were finishing up practice Pops walked into the debate room.
“I came to pick you up,” he said. His shirt half tucked in his pants as if he’d rushed.
Trevor looked at his watch, then walked over to Pops extending his hand. Pops, sporting a sour look, left him hanging.
“I was going to bring him home, Mr. Sloan,” Trevor said, his hand now dangling by his side. “You didn’t have to come.”
Pops scanned Trevor from bottom to top, starting with the black Converse Chuck Taylor’s he wore to the tan fedora hat that sat atop his head.
“You can’t have him he’s my son,” Pops said so low Trevor had to lean in to hear him.
When Trevor remained silent Pops repeated it, this time for the world to hear. Startled, Trevor stumbled back so hard his fedora fell off.
“Calvin call your Mom and tell her to come pick you up,” Trevor said, looking around the room haphazardly, then picking his hat up off of the floor. “I will take care of the Sloan’s. Mr. Sloan doesn’t appear to be feeling well,” he said gradually, glancing over Pops, his eyebrows cocked.
“I hear how you call my son, son,” Pops said breathing as if he’d completed a hundred yard dash. His eyes empty, lethal. I’d seen this look before. The one that made him unrecognizable. Dread covered Pop’s face, as if wishing whatever was about to overtake him would stop, because he couldn’t control its impulse no matter how destructive it made him become. He lunged towards Trevor with a barrage of punches causing Trevor to hit the ground instantly. I didn’t move. Instead, I watched, blow after blow, Trevor wincing with each hit, any attempt to block them thwarted by quick, vicious jabs. When finally free, Trevor stumbled across the room and picked up his cell phone. But Calvin must’ve called the police and Mom because little time had passed before a swarm of cops and first responders arrived. Pops mumbled incoherently, perhaps trying to tame the demons that haunted him. Mom rattled off short, static sentences to the cops and EMS technicians: “not taking his medicine, PTSD, breaks from reality, unexplained bouts of anger.”
At that moment she looked at me. I knew then that our bags were packed and we’d be in Baltimore before long.
“I meant what I said,” I told her, watching as they lifted Pops onto a gurney.
Tears streaked her face. “I will get you some help,” she said. “Like your father.”
Pops lay still, straps doubled across his chest and legs. His eyes darting back and forth, but not seeming to notice anyone.
“Where are they taking him?” I asked.
Mom sighed and lightly touched my cheek. “Oakwood,” she said.
About the Author: Erica L. Williams received an MFA in Creative Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming from Kansas City Voices, Necessary Fiction, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and Blood Orange Review. She tweets @ EricaLWilliams3 and Instagrams @ ericalwilliams3. She lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.