Be Great

Posted on: April 24, 2014

Taking the train home from the other side of town is like visiting a weird zoo—one where all the animals are different from you, and you shouldn’t look them in the eyes. There’s a tourist holding a pole and standing over me, looking like Willy Wonka wearing a Hawaiian print shirt. In the seat on my right, a man in a ratty coat reads Chapter 20: “Tentacles.” Sitting across the train car, two little girls in braids cut up, tickling one another. Then the older one leans over and licks the smaller one on the forehead. In front of me, there’s a woman carrying a purple orchid. A man reading a Spanish newspaper. A girl who interjects her rapid-fire Chinese with “I’m just sayin’.”

If I were in a praying mood, I’d pray we don’t get stuck in a tunnel.

When I switch trains at L’Enfant, I get back on my turf. Everything evens out, and it’s the strangers I always see. People I know, but don’t know. Tired people headed home from work. Sometimes a panhandler, but one who knows better than to ask here.

Walking back through the neighborhood, I find the boys playing ball.

“Z, come play!” Mike says.

“Nah, man, can’t.”

“Where’ve you been today?”


“School?” Mike says, throwing the basketball at my chest. “The fuck?”

“I told you I was doing college,” I say.

“Z’s too good for us now,” Arthur laughs from over by the fence. “Come on, Mike. Leave him alone.”

I throw Arthur the ball. I expected this. I just hoped it wouldn’t happen on my first day. Up at the school, they said they could see I was different. How I pay attention to things. But I don’t need anybody telling me I’m special. My whole crew’s been getting that our whole lives, and look where it’s gotten most of us. Playing ball in the middle of a weekday. Doing nothing. Like they told us we were special just to keep us alive.

“I’ll be out later,” I say. “Got to check on my mom.”

I go in the house, making sure the door doesn’t slam behind me. She might be asleep.

“Baby, is that you?”

She’s awake. I can hear her oxygen tank making its puffing noise, like a big dog sniffing something every few seconds.

“It’s me.”

“How was school?” she calls from her bedroom.

“It was good, Mama. Everybody’s nice.”

“I’m so proud of you, baby.”

“I know. Did you eat yet?”

“I did. There’s some in the fridge for you.”

I heat up the leftovers, peas and rice, and turn the TV on. It’s the local news, and the ugly anchor with the shoulders like a linebacker is talking about the usual. Somebody’s missing. Somebody’s shot. Somebody’s crashed their car on the beltway, and there’s a massive pileup. I decide I’m not hungry and put my bowl back in the fridge.

I leave the news on and go back to Mama’s room. Her eyes are closed, but she opens them when I enter.

“You get enough to eat?”

“Yeah,” I lie.

“Tell me all about school, now. What classes did they give you?”

“English and computers. And introduction to criminal justice.”

“You’re going to be great, baby. You know that? You’re going to be great.”

“I’m going to try,” I say. “I’m going out. You good without me?”

“You go on. Tell Arthur I said he needs to go back to school, too.”

“I will.”

We play fast and hard. It’s August, still too hot to play with a shirt on, even at night. Mike tries to cheat every chance he gets, but I hurl myself around him, not meeting his eyes. My Jordans smack the cracked pavement. The game breaks down to nothing but sound—the huffs of our breath, the thunks of the ball on the backboard, the metallic rattle as it rolls through the hoop.

“Z thinks he’s a scholar, he doesn’t need ball,” Mike says.

“No team will take a dropout like you, Mike,” Arthur says. “You don’t need ball, either—you need the lotto.”

“Shut the fuck up,” Mike says, but he’s not mad. Mike may be bitter, but he’s not unhappy. He runs shit around here, and that means something. And his girlfriend’s about to have a baby. Even though Mama wouldn’t agree, I know Mike’s going to be a good dad. He cares when it matters.

“What’s it like over there in white-ville?” Mike asks, wiping the sweat from his forehead.

“Nice,” I say. “Shiny-ass buildings. Nobody getting caught smoking a j on kiddie playgrounds. Nobody like that around.”

“That was one time!” Mike yells. “What, you think I could’ve gone home like that? My grandmother would kill me if she caught me high.”

Arthur laughs so hard he doubles over. “Well, when you get sick of all that law-abiding bullshit, you know where to find us,” he chokes.

“I’ll remember that,” I say.

Arthur and I hit the corner store for beer, and he follows me back to the house.

“So you really like it at college?”

“Yeah,” I say. “It’s not like what you think. Everybody’s just like us. It’s just regular people. And they say they can help you find jobs.”

“Jobs. They could get me something better than Checkers?”

“Maybe.” I push open the door to the house. The TV is still on. The linebacker news anchor is gone, replaced by the bald guy who does the weather. Tomorrow: hot. The next day: hotter. The day after that: more of the same.

Arthur takes the beer to the kitchen, and I go to Mama’s room. The oxygen machine’s still making its noise.

“Mama,” I whisper. “You need anything?”

She doesn’t answer. Must be sleeping. But she’s more still than usual. I watch her stomach to see if it’s going up and down. It’s not.

I go closer to the bed and touch her arm.

“Mama, you okay?”

Arthur sticks his head around the doorframe.

“She asleep?”

I shake my head.

“She’s gone.”

“Shit, man.”

I call my aunt and the hospice nurse. Arthur sits with me while we wait for them, and I heat up the peas and rice, the last meal my mother will ever cook for me. I sit at the table and eat, each bite feeling more like food of the dead. Arthur starts on the beer and flips through my new computer book.

“I’m sorry, Z,” he says. “What are you going to do now?”

“I don’t know.”

Outside, I hear the hospice nurse pull up. Somewhere, kids are laughing and running down the street. Off a ways, a car’s backfiring. The whole neighborhood’s still alive.

Written by: Dot Dannenberg
Photograph by: Daniel Vidal

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