When We Were Young by W. F. Redmond

• 1 •

“Come on Sheila, ya don’t really believe that, do you, girl?” I asked in consternation.
When We Were Young
When We Were Young by W. F. Redmond
Silence. Always silence from her every time I pointed out just how ridiculous she sounded making such an outlandish accusation. “Well, shit, Milt. Why in da fuck shouldn’t I think so?” spat Sheila venomously, rolling her big, caramel-colored eyes to accentuate her point. Man, talk about shock. I was speechless. All I could do was stare down at her petite, diminutive figure as she glared up at me defiantly. Though she stood only 5’2” — a full foot shorter than my 6’2” and change (I know because we’d measured ourselves a couple of times when we were young) — Sheila more than made herself my equal with attitude, energy, and smarts. “Ba-but come on now, girl. In order for Annette to wreck her car by ramming into that Sparkletts Water truck just to get back at you after so many years, she would’ve had to hate you more than she loved life. That’s hard to believe, don’cha think?” I stated, trying my best to interject a bit of logic into our conversation. She took one small step backward and craned her neck upwards, as if by doing so she could see me better, or some other such Sheila Knightism. “Thas, th-that’s entirely possible. You yourself know that the woman has always been jealous of me, constantly accusing me of interfering in her marriage. Knowing her ass the way I do — shit, like we both do — who knows what a wife who has been cheated on her entire marriage, and even before, might’a been thinking? Shit, dat girl might’a just got ta where she couldn’t take it no more and decided to end it all, and to take me wit her. But she could never do no wrong in your eyes. Pure, clean, innocent, holier-than-thou Annette Reed. Yo ass is constantly making her good and me bad, just ’cause of one stupid mistake. But she wasn’t perfect, Milton, no more’n I was. Stop making excuses for her!” I knew right then that the conversation was over, or at least anything resembling rationality had run its course. Since ninth grade, when I’d transferred to Stevens Junior High School in Long Beach, from Vanguard in the city of Compton, the Reeds, the Knights, the Paiges, and — well, I suppose if the truth is to be maintained, I must include the Calhouns. In any event, our four families had been connected since I was 15, and by more than just the fact that we all lived on the 3200 block of Gale Street on the Westside of Long Beach, California. Suddenly, it was almost like I was standing there all by myself and there was no Sheila berating me. • “Boy, hurry up with that box and go git another’n,” ordered my mother. She stood beside the rented truck, decked out in jeans and a man’s old Pendleton shirt, staring at me, obviously trying to be patient. Although I heard her loud and clear, I didn’t move or respond. How could I? Movement for me was held at a standstill, locked into immobility by a set of eyes which, from the 10-foot distance separating us, appeared more tan than brown. “Milton Paige, git’cho ass in gear. Dere’s plenny’a work dat needs ta be done, right now!” screamed my mother, using her no-nonsense tone. More than her direct command, which usually caused all five of her kids to jump in terror, it was the loud, heckling laughter emanating from all around me that broke the spell and caught my attention. When I glanced to my left, I saw a brown-skinned kid who stood about my height, but was much broader in the chest and shoulders. And if looks could kill, they could’ve fitted me for a coffin and written my epitaph then and there. Rays of rage bounced off him toward me. To my right stood a fine-boned girl with long, silky hair and an angelic face, dressed in homely clothing. When our eyes locked, she at least had the courtesy to stop laughing. She even flashed me a warm smile, which I returned fully. “Boy, what da devil dun got in’ta you? They charges extra if we don’t git dis truck back by 5:00, and we gots at least two more trips back to our old place. Now quit’cha stallin’ and git a move on, ya hear me?” barked Iva Jean Paige. This time I jumped so hard that I banged my shin into the metal bed frame that my youngest brothers, Neal and Norman, were lugging into the house. Again there was a brief round of snickers, which caused me to hunch my shoulders and shrink in shame. This time, even the tiny girl with the big afro hairstyle and cat-colored eyes laughed at me uproariously. My humiliation was complete. • “Dammit, Milton, are you even listenin’ to me? Milton. M-i-l-t-o-n!” screamed Sheila, snatching me back from memories of that very first day on Gale Street some 44 years earlier. “Thas it, tired of your ass ignoring me. But she kilt me, took my life, left my kids all by themselves. And it’s all your fault. Ya always favored her over me. Well, we’re both dead now, and you’re by yourself,” whined Sheila as she slowly faded out. Oh damn, it’s just a dream. I jerked myself awake. “Whew,” I exhaled. Not again. For three long years, differing versions of my recurring nightmares of that fateful day, December 24, 1999, had haunted me. That was the day that changed so much in my life; the day when it all came crashing down on me. It was the day that I lost it all — the only love I’d ever known, and the day that all three of my children became motherless. I lay in bed under the covers taking a slow inventory of my body parts. They seemed to all be in place. The room was chilled. I could tell because my left foot hung over the side of the mattress and the sheet at that end was cold. I jerked my foot back under the protection of my blankets, instantly intertwining my legs into a pretzel. It felt good. Almost against my will, my mind drifted back to the dream I’d just been mercifully rescued from. I say “rescued” because whether it was Sheila or Annette pointing accusatory fingers at me, it made no difference. They were both dead, run down by the drunk driver of a Sparkletts Water truck. The tragic accident was made all the more devastating because it happened one day before Christmas, three years ago. That fact alone would’ve been enough to send my world into a tailspin and me into a depression. But because it was my idea, nay, my insistence that they go shopping for our kids and grands that day, together, I’d been haunted ever since. I felt guilt because although the two of them didn’t want to be in each other’s company, I was persistent. I even felt guilty because my pension and disability checks had arrived late — matters out of my control. But I had spent years lamenting the fact that the late arrival of the checks necessitated that ill-fated, late shopping trip. The main source of my guilty feelings was the fact that I’d played a dirty trick to get them both to my house at the same time, in what had to have been my millionth attempt to bring an end to the enmity, rancor, and discord between the mothers of my three children and grandmothers of my eight grands. Guilt, guilt, guilt. So much guilt and grief that no matter which of the two dead women haunted my sleep — and both did on a regular basis — it left me shaken and ridden with anguish and guilt. Today being Christmas Eve made Sheila’s little visit even more poignant and heart wrenching for me. Hard to believe that it’d been three whole years. I often wondered if it would always be this way. People seem to be fascinated with the word “closure.” Huh. So far, all I’d experienced was misery, guilt, self-recrimination, rage, and loneliness; always the loneliness as my constant companion. “Oh well, it is Christmas Eve, and I do have to take this money to my kids,” I spoke out loud, though I was alone in my bed in my one-bedroom place that I rented from Mr. Pennington, my old baseball coach. I was the legal owner of the four-bedroom house that I grew up in, but Gale Street held entirely too many memories for me to ever be comfortable there. Mitchell, my child with Sheila, lived there with his wife and four kids. I’d spent a couple of hours with him last night, a lot longer than I normally spent there. Today’s task list was to see Francis and her twins, and Frieda and her two kids. “It’s now or never,” I said, again speaking out loud. I chanced a glance at the window. The frosty outline confirmed that indeed it was cold outside. “For once the weatherman may be right. “Cold early morning, with clear skies and sunshine by noon. Highs expected to reach the mid-60s.” I took a deep breath, steeled myself, threw the covers back and swung out of bed. I moved quickly in order to avoid changing my mind, which was something I’d been wont to do ever since I was a youngster. “Brrr,” I chattered between clenched teeth. The cold, still air knifed through me, making my thermal underwear feel nonexistent, and my bare feet on the cold, naked wooden floor seemed to instantly turn to icicles. “Ranger!” I yelled. I knew beforehand that expecting to find my old, dog-bitten and well-used house slippers beside my bed, where I’d last stepped out of them, would be a waste of time. Ranger, my four-year-old miniature shepherd, had taken to using them as a pillow, hesitantly returning them only after being yelled at. But there was not much I could do about it, since he seemed to be the only creature from my past willing to put up with me these days. He chose that moment to trot into the bedroom, his head erect, back stiff, carrying one gray slipper; the right slipper, always the right slipper. I knew without even looking. He was proud of himself, as always. After dropping the slipper at my feet, he rubbed up against my leg, looked up at me, and wagged his tail expectantly, apparently unconcerned that the floor was ice cold and my feet were freezing. “The other shoe, now, Ranger!” I shouted and clapped my hands to emphasize my point. He visited a long-suffering, put-upon expression toward me, hung his head, and slowly slunk out of the room, into and through the kitchen, and out to the service porch where he slept. I turned around and slid my right foot into the comfortable old slipper, which at first was colder than the floor. In short order my pet returned and dropped the left slipper unceremoniously at my feet, which I immediately laid claim to. Afterward, I walked out to the front door, opened it just a crack, and Ranger scampered out to do his morning business. In spite of the cold temperature, I left the door ajar so he’d be able to get back inside. The clock on my stove read 7:30. Next, I put on a pot of coffee and turned both the central heating and the oven on so I could thaw out the place, and my body. My heating bills were getting so high that I’d taken to using it only when absolutely necessary. It was the same with my air conditioning unit during the summer months. I did all right on the three checks that I received, but still needed to cut corners and save every penny that I could. I also liked to be in a position to help out the kids whenever they needed me. I had worked at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard as a coppersmith until June of 1997, when a careless crane operator dropped a load from the upper deck of a cargo ship. Lucky for me, the canister filled with metal rods bound for China only pinned my right leg to the deck. The doctors said that a foot more in either direction and I might’ve lost more than just the use of my lower leg. After accepting a hefty six-figure settlement, I was granted permanent disability and retired after 25 years with a full pension. With my small Social Security check added to that, I never had to touch the principal from the settlement and brought in a little under three grand a month. So, I lived frugally, simply, within my means. That also meant that when the lawyers settled the wrongful death suit with the water company, I wanted none of the $3.2 million that everyone thought the kids would end up with. But being the crooks that they are, the lawyers took more than four hundred thousand dollars, leaving the kids $2.8 million to split four ways; seven hundred thousand to my daughters Frieda and Francis, and my son Mitchell. Also included in the distribution would be Darlene, Sheila’s 25-year-old daughter with Benny Calhoun. “Aghh…ahh, Benny Calhoun,” I sighed. No, not now, it’s Christmas Eve and I’ve got a full day in front of me. No need to start off on a bad note. • 2 • At 9:05 a.m. I was walking up the driveway to the front house gate, with Ranger at my heels. I’d taken a hot bath, enjoyed a heavy, hearty breakfast, and gotten dressed. Then I went to my little cash stash. It wasn’t even a real safe, just a Hav-A-Tampa cigar box. After a few seconds’ hesitation, I counted out $4,200 to ensure that I had enough money to take care of the tasks I had slated. “Hey, Mr. Pennington!” I yelled out. “Hey Coach, I’m leaving. Ranger’s loose in the yard,” I added. He didn’t respond, nor did Mrs. Doris, his wife of some 50 years. Not that I really expected any answer, though I’m certain that they both heard me. After I closed the gate I stood stark still for a moment waiting, silently ticking off time in my head . . . 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 . . . okay, there he comes. After hearing his side entrance door slam, I eased away from the house and set my course for the 2900 block of Fashion Avenue to drop in on Francis, my youngest child. Of all my children, she looked the most like me. Her temperament, however, wasn’t anything like mine. She was…well, she was…. Francis’s demeanor and character were very difficult to describe or explain. She was so meek and so giving on the one hand, a real joy to be around. At other times, the child confounded the hell out of me. She had a mean, spiteful streak that sent her into blind rages. During both of her pregnancies, that latter aspect of her nature was most prominent. It was hell just being around her. I pitied her boyfriend Lamont because of how she treated him. It surprised me to no end that he endured all of her crap, not once, but twice, through the births of Bridget and Equetta. To top that off, after he graduated from Cal State Irvine, he married her and supported her through her final year at Cal State Dominguez Hills. And though she ran their home like a drill sergeant, they seemed to be happy and living a good life. Just goes to show that ya never know about such things. When I got to their three-bedroom, split-level, ranch-style house, I didn’t see her gray Suburban, and involuntarily heaved a sigh of relief. Not that I didn’t want to see her, because I really did. But it was Christmas Eve, the three-year anniversary of the tragedy. And after the dream I’d just had, I wasn’t sure I’d have the strength to deal with my youngest daughter’s accusatory eyes, which so mirrored my own brown orbs. I sat with Lamont for a little more than an hour, mostly making small talk and hearing about his most recent promotion at Magnavox Electronics, and getting an update on Francis’s progress in the Executive Training Program at Lockheed Aircraft. All in all, it was a pleasant, though very short, visit. • 3 • After leaving $1,000 as my holiday gift to them, I left Francis’s house at 10:20, my next destination, 3319-D South Santa Fe, to visit Frieda, six-year-old Frank, and four-year-old Brenda. Frieda’s husband, Darrell, was in the Air Force and was currently deployed to Germany for special training on some new high-tech bomber. The difference in my two daughters ran far deeper than just the surface or their divergent appearances. Had Annette chosen to reproduce herself totally in looks, demeanor, and style, it all added up to Frieda…except where Annette could occasionally be passive, Frieda had a will of iron and a very persuasive way of getting her point across. She handled her sister and half brother, Mitchell, with a loving deftness that we all marveled at. In no way was her influence more readily apparent than when it came to Darlene Calhoun, Sheila’s daughter with my lifelong enemy/friend/teammate, Benny. From day one, Frieda ridiculed the criticism from Mitchell and Francis, their dislikes, and torments toward the girl. In that vein, she was very much like her mother. Annette loved Darlene, and made certain that she was invited to and included in all of our family functions. She even stood up to Sheila’s hostility when it came to Darlene. Most people, Sheila included, wrote it off as Annette being simply glad that Sheila had a child with anybody other than me. Others claimed that she only wanted to have a relationship with Darlene to hurt and shame Sheila. I’m not a soothsayer, nor do I possess any magic looking glass, but I knew Annette Reed Paige well. Very well. Perhaps better than anyone else on Earth knew her. I could state unequivocally that her sentiments toward Darlene were genuine, from the heart, regardless of who the child’s parents were. At the same time, Annette never made any bones about it. She deeply resented Sheila’s and my long-term, bordering on animal attraction and magnetism toward one another. Especially after Annette and I were married and had children. Perhaps most ironic was the fact that she loved Sheila dearly. They were lifelong friends and Sheila’s daughter was simply that: Sheila’s child. Now Benny…that was a different matter altogether. She had very little use for him, especially after he tried to hit on her repeatedly. It was obvious that his numerous attempts to seduce her were more about getting back at Sheila and me than any real feelings toward Annette. The one physical altercation Benny and I had happened one night when I chanced upon them in the parking lot at The Hutch Community Center. He’d been very close to forcing himself on her. After that, she barely acknowledged his presence. But she never, ever turned her back on Sheila, and she adored her children, including Mitchell, my son with Sheila. Those who had the perception of Annette as this weak-willed, mousy little pushover didn’t really know her. After her mother’s death, she’d basically raised her three younger siblings, even while she somehow remained an A student. And many a night she walked her alcoholic father home and put him to bed. I know, because more times than not, I helped her do it. Annette was a very strong woman, extremely secure in herself. Even secure in the knowledge that I loved her deeply and would never leave her, for Sheila or any other woman. Proof of her inner strength was demonstrated when, after 22 years of marriage, she divorced me, took the kids, and moved out. After obtaining her Master’s Degree in Urban Public Health, she went to work for the County of Los Angeles, and became a beacon of light and inspiration for everybody who came in contact with her. Man, am I ever going to be free of my thoughts, my memories? I’d been walking the streets almost aimlessly since leaving Francis’s house. Really, there was no need for me to plan or think; I knew the route to my destination quite well. In fact, I knew this entire area like I knew the back of my hand. It was, and since I was 15 had been, my stompin’ grounds. On 31st Street, where I was, I didn’t need to look up at the signs, nor pay attention to the houses. From Santa Fe Avenue, going east toward the freeway, all the streets were named in alphabetical order, from A to G. So, coming from where I was raised and currently lived, on 31st Street, that order was reversed. It went Gale, Fashion, Easy, Delta, Caspian, Baltic, Adriatic, and then Santa Fe. I had just passed Easy and was in the middle of the block approaching Delta, when an almost larger-than-life image of my older brother and childhood hero, Mitchell, flashed before my eyes. The apparition was life-like, and so profound that it knocked me off balance, breaking my stride. I stopped, blinked my eyes once, twice, three times before reassurance that it was only my imagination playing tricks on me surged through my being. Guilt, shame…when will it end? Knowing that I had no answer for the question, I mustered up my strength, put my feet into gear, and moved on. I crossed Delta and began making my way toward Caspian Street. After I’d walked a bit more than half a block, two things caught my attention at pretty much the same time. First, I noticed that the sun was out and the temperature had risen quite a lot. I was actually warm. Then, the sound of voices raised in excitement penetrated my ears. Again I staggered to a halt and began to scan the area. The source and nature of the noise I identified at once — the main outside basketball court at Silverado Park, where there was a game going on. Without any conscious thought on my part, my feet angled toward the park, drawn, as always, to the hoop court. But even a man with an overload of sadness, grief, and a heavy heart is not made of iron, nor is he immune to life’s realities. About halfway across the street I was reminded of that — and how! “Hey muthafucka, watch where ya going, God damn it. Are ya drunk or somethin?” I heard the man in the bright-red Ford F-250 pick-up yell at me, even before the sound of him braking and burning rubber, and screeching to avoid running me down, actually registered in my brain. After hearing both of these things, I came to a halt and stood stark still. And that’s when fear set in and I became alarmed as the acrid smell of burnt rubber wafted up into my nostrils. Suddenly, I really got scared. “Hey man, I’m in a hurry. Will ya just git outta da middle of the damned street, please? Are you okay there, brotherman, or what?” he asked, compassion and empathy becoming more apparent with each word. “Y-ye-yeah, yeah man, I’m all right. Scuze me, please,” I mumbled then quickstepped to the park side of 31st Street. The man immediately threw his truck into gear, we locked eyes, and he shook his head, probably in wonderment as he drove past me. I shook myself vigorously, trying to clear my head and calm my nerves. “Man, gots’ta be more careful,” I uttered to myself. Ching! Man, I’m really tripping. Maybe I should just head back to the house, do this shit later. Ching! That sound rang again. This was a sound that I was more than familiar with. It was the sweet sound of the chain basketball nets swishing as a jump shot found its mark. I not only knew the sound, but somewhere in the deep recesses of my being, that sound triggered the release of some type of endorphins. Happy ones. Ching! Ahh yes, all net, umph! Drawn by a power greater than myself, I homed in on the park. There were already too many spectators squeezed into the 100x45-foot caged-in area, which housed the rubber-matted, regulation basketball court, for me to gain entry. So, I did the next best thing. I hobbled all the way past the court to the hedges nearby, went around, and doubled back. I was now on the other side of the enclosed court, up against the fence, completely alone, a spectator of one. Added to that, I was close enough to actually see the sweat as it began popping out on the foreheads of a couple of players. That little secret passage had been there for many years and only those who spent a lot of time at Silverado Park even knew of its existence. Most people thought the hedges only stood as sentinels to the downstairs multipurpose area under the auditorium. Few knew that if you simply kept going beyond the concrete walkway to the beaten path and angled left, you’d end up back near the beginning of the hedges, which were visible from courtside. But I knew, as did all of us kids from Wardlow Road to Willow Street and beyond, from Santa Fe to the freeway, and even beyond that. When we were young, in winter or summer, all year round, Silverado Park was the place to be; a second home of sorts. We played all sports, representing the Silverado Blazers against all the other parks in the renowned Long Beach City Sports League Federation. Our adversaries were guys from Cherry Park, 19th Street Playground, and the East Side Rec Center, just to name a few. But growing up during my era, our main opponents were located further south on Santa Fe, at Admiral Kid Park. We always played them hardest, and they us. Once ensconced in my front-row spectator spot, I could see that one team of five had already lost and was walking toward the other end to settle up and/or wait for another run. When we played these games, lots of money changed hands, and I smiled inwardly because nothing much had changed. Those five — no, no, make it six — they all wore blue t-shirts, jerseys, or cut-off sweatshirts, so it was obvious that the five dudes in the gray shirts had beaten them and were waiting for a team of seven warming up on the far court to get ready. Those guys were all sporting red jerseys. There was a team decked out in yellow standing on the sidelines, and farther down I spotted five dudes sporting that very familiar black jersey with the one gray flash of lightning. My brother Mitch and Benny Calhoun had dubbed it “The Blazer Flash.” It was gratifying to see that it had stuck for all of these years. Okay, here we go, game time. The center jump was the first indication that this would be a game marked by the unexpected, filled with surprises. When the two teams lined up at center court, I was certain that the big center for the victorious gray team had an overwhelming advantage over the guy jumping for the red team. Not very hard to do when the latter guy topped out at some 6’3” at most. He looked biracial, a combination of Asian and black by all appearances. In contrast, the big brother for team gray was a monster. At 6’8” or even 6’9”, with a Charles Barkley backside, he would easily have fit in as an NFL offensive lineman, ’cause the dude had to weigh in at 320 pounds, or maybe more — a real brute. Right away the surprises began. The dude jumping for the red team got off the ground so fast that many, including the one official calling the game, were certain that he’d stolen the tip. But on the second toss, he easily controlled the rock, tapping it to one of his teammates. Something else that became obvious to me was the relative difference in ages, as well as sizes of the two squads. All seven of the red-shirted players were in their mid-to-late 30s, while the bigger guys in gray were all much younger, maybe by an average of nine to 10 years. Oh, what a move! The dude on the red team who’d run down the center tap drove the lane directly toward two gray-clad opposition players. They were standing inside the key with hands raised high in the air blocking the goal. One being about 6’4” and the other even taller, they presented a virtual wall, one that looked impenetrable. Well, this dude from team red caught up with the tap, drove, and with no hesitation took flight about two feet past the free-throw line and flew directly at the human wall blocking him from the rim. I think it was the timing and audacity that made the move so devastating. But at the moment of impact — or should I say, the moment of bright-red explosion and near simultaneous parting of the gray fortress, followed by a resounding left-handed thunder dunk — all I could say was, “Damn, what a move!” Then, as if to confound and confuse the onlookers even more, or maybe to show his athleticism, the dunker seemed to hang in suspended animation for just a “real-time” fraction of a second. Then he slowly floated down, touching the ground lightly. In less than a heartbeat, he pivoted around and darted to the half-court line. I’ll say this for the gray team; though they had clearly been sucker-punched gunshot by the opening tap and monster dunk, they responded like true champs. The two-man wall separated in near synchronized motion. The shorter dude took the ball out and passed it to the other half of the obstruction that had been scaled by the red team’s undersized highflier. The face on that guy was very familiar, and so was his gait, size, and the easy way he handled the rock. I racked my brain, momentarily coming up blank as the guy advanced the ball, his head on a swivel as he methodically surveyed the court. At half-court he was met by the red-clad dude who’d jumped center. The guy made a hard dribble to the right then casually went behind his back. In a sudden burst of speed he turned on his afterburners and left the would-be defender stuck and shaken out of his shoes. That’s when it clicked. This kid had to be Greg Fletcher, Junior — the 6’6” point guard who’d gotten a full ride to one of the Florida schools a couple of years ago after leading Long Beach Poly to three consecutive CIF (California Intramural Federation) Sectional Championships. The familiarity in his game was because I’d known, and played both with and against his father, Gregory, since the 10th grade. We played together for Poly, but were opponents in Federation play. Greg Senior lived on the East Side and represented the Rec. Like his dad, the kid handled the rock like it was a yo-yo, an extension of his hands. Once he’d easily shaken off his defender, he flung a 30-foot bounce pass cross-court to a wide-open teammate in gray standing at the three-point line on the baseline. This guy caught the ball, and in one fluid motion flicked his wrist, letting fly with about a 25-foot shot just a millisecond before a hand attached to a fast-moving red streak appeared in front of him. Without a backward glance, the shooter rushed down court to take his place at the forward position in a two-three-zone defense that featured a size comparable to most division-one ball clubs. In addition to the aforementioned beefy 6’9” center for the gray team, there was a Hispanic dude who matched him in bulk and stood a solid 6’7” himself. The dude who’d sunk the baseline three-pointer occupied the other wing. And while he was thin — reed thin — he had to be about 6’3”, and had long, willowy arms, which gave him a huge and incredible wingspan to match what I would soon come to see was his deadly outside shooting touch. That left the guard tandem, who had failed to guard the goal on the opening tap, playing up top. Greg Jr. had to be the oldest, at maybe 22. These dudes were big, strong, and young. On the other side was a team of older dudes; five brothers, a white dude, and the guy who’d jumped center for “Red Haze,” as I learned they’d dubbed themselves. At barely 6’3”, the biracial dude was the tallest man on their seven-man squad. What they brought to the dance were seven guards. I soon saw that each one of them could handle the ball, shoot, pass, and boy could they move. This was evidenced by how easily they moved, cut, set picks, and wound up with an uncontested lay-up by their center on their second possession of the game. After that possession, the red team showed what their real strength was: a stifling, full-court, man-to-man defense. It caught the big Latino by surprise. The way the play unfolded was textbook. After converting the lay-up, the red team’s center followed the skinny, gray-clad, outside shooter as he took the ball out of bounds. The dude contested that first inbounds attempt, and he nearly came up with a steal. But he did block the pass, albeit right back out of bounds into the face of the willowy-armed guy from team gray. More vigilant this time, the passer faked the inbounds as he searched frantically for a teammate. His desperate search prompted me to scan the court myself. “Ahh,” I muttered under my breath. No wonder this cat is damn near panicked, nobody’s open. And that was a fact. Every member of the gray team had a smaller, but very-much-present man from Red Haze draped all over him. These dudes, all guards...well, they were living up to the position’s title. They were guarding, playing each gray-clad player without the ball. At the last possible second, perhaps aware that he was very near to being called for a violation, the dude heaved the ball in the direction of Greg Jr. Whether it was instinct, the result of practice, confidence in his teammate, or maybe osmosis, I would never know. As I watched the rock fly, I followed its path until it reached its zenith, then the slower decline. My first thought was that the pass was headed out of bounds, having been tossed so desperately. I think Greg Jr. thought so too, because he seemed to pull up at the last second as he neared the sideline, near half-court. A sudden streak of red flashed before me, elevated between the out-of-bounds line and where Greg Jr. stood staring expectantly as the ball descended. Then, right before our eyes, a hand — an extremely large hand — reached out and snared the ball. The player attached to that hand landed lightly on his feet, accelerated, and within a half-dozen dribbles, executed another uncontested lay-up. His next move demonstrated he had been well coached at some point in his life. He never even saw the ball drop through the hoop, because he went directly to the out-of-bounds line and waited for someone on team gray to take out and inbound the basketball. Apply pressure though he might, the 6’1” guy in red was…well … 6’1”. Greg Jr., the guy inbounding the ball, faked the pass to the left; then, using his 6’6” frame, launched a near-perfect chest pass to his big center, who upon recognizing the press being applied, came back as an outlet. Using his bulk as a shield, he caught the ball, came to a stop, and set a huge pick for Greg Jr., who had followed his own pass. After running his defender into the left shoulder of his big guy, Greg literally snatched the ball from his teammate’s big hands and easily advanced into the forecourt. Once there, he slowed down and waved his 6’9” shield into the key, where the latter assumed the post position deep in the lower box. Right away I recognized the gray team’s game plan. They were going to pound the ball inside and use their superior size — a completely different strategy than that of the smaller, quicker red team. “Oh, shit!” I shouted. The big guy in the paint was only a ruse designed to force a double-team, which came almost immediately from the wing. And wouldn’tcha know it, that’s precisely where the ball went. Standing there, wide open, not a red jersey in sight, was the previously mentioned, long-limbed shooter. Yep, bang — another light flick of the wrist and same result: a three-pointer knotting the game at six. In a flash, seeming to snatch the ball out of the net, a brown-skinned brother sporting big dookie braids and whom I estimated stood about 6’1”, stepped out of bounds and rifled a line drive to the smallest member of team Red Haze, sprinting down the sideline. This guy never dribbled the ball. He caught it, took one giant step, slung a pass to the wing, cut down the lane, got a return pass, and elevated for a soft, easy, two-handed dunk, putting his team up eight to six. I found myself wishing that the grass wasn’t damp, because it was obvious that this game was gonna beone to remember. Then came that nagging ache as my right leg, weak from the thigh down, started to pulse. Not much at first, but the combination of the early-December morning chill and me putting weight on the leg served to warn me that the ache would become a painful throb. I leaned forward, grasped two solid handfuls of cyclone fence, and subtly shifted so that more of my 205 pounds rested on my left leg. I didn’t want to miss a thing. The action was hot and heavy, nonstop, with several lead changes as play proceeded. Neither squad was able to enjoy being in the lead for very long. During that first half, the largest differential was three points by the gray team. At the half, they were knotted at 13, and for a hoops fanatic like myself, it’d been well worth any discomfort that I’d endured. While the teams went to the restroom, grabbed water, or just rested, I stretched out my limbs and removed my lined trench coat. At some point during that first half, the temperature had warmed up quite nicely, and I had actually begun to sweat. After checking the grass’s moisture, I flipped my coat inside out and laid it on the ground, then slowly eased myself down on top of it. My eyes began to scan the park as members of both teams began trickling back toward the court, some waving to friends, others chatting amicably with onlookers. And in a huge departure from when we were young, I witnessed a couple of gray-clad and red-clad dudes laughing and talking, even backslapping one another amicably. As I gazed around, I also experienced a bit of shock and disappointment at the park’s overall condition: shabby. There were gang signs sprayed over other gangs’ identification marks. Graffiti seemed to cover nearly every inch of every structure within eyesight. It was deplorable and very depressing. What happened? Where is the thick, lush green grass that Silverado Park, “my park,” has always boasted, even in the winter? The rundown, neglected state of the buildings, fences, and the landscape was more akin to the 19th Street Playground, or some of the other East Side places. In all fairness to maintenance or whoever, it was obvious that efforts had been made to keep the place up and rid the park of its eyesores. Layers of paint were easily identifiable. But it was also quite clear that all such efforts had been futile. It was saddening. Mercifully, I was rescued in short order when the teams took the court for the second half of play. Gone instantly was any melancholia due to the harsh realities of encroaching urban squalor. After all, what could I, a cripple whose best days were behind him, do? Before that impossible question could weigh me down, the sweet sound of the chain net’s ching grabbed my full attention. I looked up just as team gray took the ball out. A snap glance at the scoreboard (another relic from the past) showed Red Haze up 46 to 43. I must’ve missed something… I lamented, remembering that the red team had won the first half tip, which would’ve given the gray team the first possession of the second half. The mystery of exactly what I’d missed quickly became a non-factor as Greg Jr. pulled up and let fly with a deep three-pointer. Ching! All net, game tied again. “Aw shit,” I exclaimed to myself. “Things are heatin’ up.” And they were, too. • 4 • Sometime during the tight, excitement-filled and fast-paced second half, team gray became my old Blazers team. The dude in the middle became my older brother Mitchell, though my sibling only stood 6’6” and checked in at 245 on his best day. The big Latino at power forward was easily substituted for Kevin Cornelius. The long-limbed, spindly outside shooter at small forward possessed the same build and skill set as my old Jackrabbit and Blazer teammate, Bradley Kline — the only white dude on any of my high school teams. When Greg Jr. went into the post against a smaller defender on the Red Haze squad, it was impossible for me not to see shades of my old nemesis/adversary/teammate, even occasional good friend, Benny Calhoun. Though only 6’4”, Benny was wide, strong, and nimble-footed, with a basketball I.Q. that few people could match. Of course, that was before Mad Dog 20/20, Ripple, and White Port wine became his constant companions. And prior to when vacant lots, freeway underpasses, and the like became his permanent address. Sadly, it was also before Mitchell was killed in action over in DaNang, Vietnam. Before…. Yeah, it still hurt, but it was also before he’d come home on leave and slept with Sheila. Well, in all fairness, they hadn’t really slept together, not at all. In Sheila’s words, “We fucked! No love, nothing. We just fucked. And so what? You’re still whining away and chasin’ behind Annette. So, why can’t I have me some fun?” she’d spat. “Screen left!” shouted Kevin. I dodged a would-be red-clad obstruction and picked up my man on the other side of his intended screener. The simple, evasive defensive maneuver came as a shock to the dribbler, causing him to try a spin move, which led him directly to Benny. The latter plucked the basketball out of the surprised player’s hand as if it were a piece of fruit. Then, just like we’d practiced perhaps a million times, I jetted down court toward our goal. And just like in practice, Benny let fly a chest pass, which I coasted underneath, made the reception, elevated and softly laid-up. That was always my way, my style of playing. For Benny, it was always the spectacular and the difficult. For my brother and Big Kevin, it was all about the power, usually thunderous dunks that rocked the stanchion and the backboard. Bradley, he very seldom ventured into the hole. And when he did he looked, well…he looked sorta geeky. Me, I just kept things simple. Winning was all that ever concerned me. “M.P., comin’ yo way,” shouted Big Kev as he moved to pick up the center for the red team, who had just rolled off a pick. Automatically, I took two giant strides to my left to defend the guy who’d set the pick on Kev. He was near the free-throw line and appeared annoyed at my presence. His frustration only increased when he tried to get around me, attempting to roll to the basket to receive a pass from a teammate. Kevin was hounding that teammate unmercifully. Added to that, Mitch stepped up and quickly double-teamed the would-be passer. I smiled. A surge of pride exploded inside me when my big brother snagged the relatively weak bounce pass and threw a perfect strike to Benny, who was streaking down the sideline. True to form, Benny executed a flawless double-pump, two-handed jam. He immediately began running the baseline, prepared to defend the inbounds pass. Even as I searched for the nearest opposition player to defend before he even got the ball, that magical stream of sibling pride and delight I’d experienced a second earlier returned tenfold. Without turning my head, I knew exactly where Mitchell was and what he was doing. He’d be patrolling the backcourt, à la an NFL Safety, our last line of defense, just in case. Us four other guys, we were applying a tight, gripping, full-court press, trying to get a steal. Lacking success at that, we would slow down any attempted fast breaks that could result in easy baskets for the opposition. The thing was, Mitchell had always been there for me, through all my ups and downs from the time I was seven years old and won all of his friends’ marbles. They were all nine- and 10-year-olds. Embarrassed to have lost to a “little squirt” as they’d labeled me, they’d tried to take their marbles back. Of course, I resisted. In the end, Mitch beat up William Moore. The others relented, but still pouted for a while. Another time, I’d won a ribbon for diving and caught the eye of Belinda Greenwood, the prettiest blonde at Stevens Junior High School. The fact that I didn’t even like her meant absolutely nothing to half of the white ninth graders. My being, not only black, but a seventh grader to boot caused my brother to have to wait for me mornings and after school for a week. It might’ve gone on forever had Mitchell not gotten tired of the cat-and-mouse routine. Yep, he called out the two biggest antagonists in front of the entire school. After he and I stood back to back, fighting for all we were worth, I had no more trouble at that school. Not even after he left for Poly High, leaving me to fend for myself. Through thick and thin, come what may, Mitchell was everything that anyone could ever want in a big brother. He was patient, protective, both a teacher and a best friend. When he graduated from school, I, like everybody else, thought for sure that he would accept the scholarship offer from Long Beach State, or even check into City College. To say that I was shocked when he enlisted in the Army would be an understatement, but I wasn’t alone on that one. My senior year in high school was very lonely in spite of all the early athletic accolades, the attention of lots of girls, ownership of Mitchell’s 1953 Chevy, and those hot, sticky nights with Sheila Knight. It was also the year when a lifetime of confusion, uncertainty, and indecisiveness began in my personal life. Annette Reed had sprouted up seemingly out of nowhere. That cute little skinny, knock-kneed girl suddenly became a gracious, curvaceous, self-assured swan. And that which had never been much of a secret exploded to the forefront. That shy little duckling set her eyes on me and did not let up one bit until she had captured my heart and my soul. Somehow, she was able to do that, even though Sheila Knight and I were going at it hot and heavy nearly every night. I guess it was much easier for us to sneak around due to the fact that Sheila had a job at Memorial Hospital and her own apartment over on Wardlow Road. The love triangle between the three of us, which had actually begun that very first day my family had moved to Gale Street, had lain dormant, simmering as we aged, then heated to a boil during my senior year and in the year to come. Annette and I enjoyed the typical youthful outings — the beach, Disneyland, Magic Mountain, and the like. When we were together, it just seemed so right, so natural. We were the perfect fit and my heart soared. But the next day or night (sometimes even the same night) I’d find myself wrapped up in the tight confines of Sheila’s clutches, sweating as she whispered sweet endearments in my ear. It’s difficult at 18 not to feel like you’re in heaven when that girl’s expertise and ample charms coaxed one gut-wrenching orgasm after another out of you. Hell, even later in life she was impossible for me to resist. I seesawed between the two, more or less openly, for nearly two years. Then, the unthinkable happened. Mitchell came home on leave after his first tour of duty in Vietnam. Although he tried very hard not to show it or cause alarm, my brother had returned a very different person. On the surface, he retained his affable manner and even-keeled nature. He even managed to come forth with his renowned, full-toothed smile at just the right time. Most people seemed to buy his act, but not our mother. And neither did I. During his 30-day leave, I caught him staring off into nothingness an awful lot. There was just something a bit off about him. And while we had both smoked our share of weed in the past, Mitchell seemed to smoke a great deal more while he was home. He drank a lot more, too. While I was concerned, even a little troubled by his new character, I was happy to be at his side. That is, until that last Friday night, three days before he was due to leave for his second tour of duty. Throughout that extremely hot August day, he’d acted strange and kinda distant toward me. It culminated with him summarily dropping me off at home at about 8:30 p.m. and burning rubber as he sped away. He gave me no explanation, no reason for his sudden change of plans. He simply drove up to the front of the house and barked, “Get out.” When I didn’t move, he repeated it. I remember standing on the sidewalk watching as his taillights became smaller, eventually merging into anonymity. About an hour later, I got bored. Annette was at a party and Sheila was working until 10:00. I borrowed my mother’s 1960 Pontiac Bonneville, because while he was home, Mitch had resumed control of his Chevy. For a while, having no particular destination in mind, I just drove around Long Beach checking out a couple of house parties. Although it was never my intention, at least not consciously, to drop by Sheila’s apartment, about 11:30 that’s where I wound up. Because I drove in from the Santa Fe direction, I approached her place from the alley. That prevented me from seeing my brother’s car. They must have felt comfortable, secure in their tryst, or were so consumed in their lust that they’d thrown all caution to the wind. The side entrance stood ajar, so I just walked in. Having taken no more than maybe three steps into the apartment, an eerie sensation flitted through me. I sensed that something was out of place. After a couple more steps, that feeling crystallized when I tripped over a size 12EE boot that was familiar, even in the faint light emanating from the kitchen. • “Hey, watch out, big guy, on your left,” shouted Greg Jr. to his big center. The big guy was so intent on jockeying for position against his defender that he was oblivious to the red-clad opponent creeping up on his blind side. “Damn!” screamed my brother, Sheila, and the big center from the gray team. They sounded like a chorus of well-rehearsed voices. “Damn, damn, damn, I dun fucked up now!” screamed Sheila, her big, saucer-round and startled eyes locked with my own as she peered over Mitchell’s broad, sweating back. “Damn, whyn’t somebody holla at me?” yelled the big center, as the red-clad thief streaked down court at breakneck speed to score an uncontested, game-winning lay-up. Somehow, today became yesterday in my mind. It was as if the game had triggered deeply buried memories of days gone by, mixing them together as I reminisced. “Dammit, bro, what the fuck are you doing here?” questioned my brother, still held in the tight grip of Sheila’s gaped legs, probably buried deep inside of her, as well. “Damn, damn, damn! Damn, whyn’t somebody holla?” “Dammit, bro, dammit bro!” Those damn-filled exclamations reverberated in my head, causing me anguish and pain, as if what I’d walked in on at 19 years of age was happening simultaneously with the end of the basketball game in the here and now. I shook my head vigorously in an effort to rid myself of the deeply confused, nearly catatonic state that had overtaken me. “Good game, Greg,” I heard someone say. I looked left, following the voice, and recognized the dude who’d jumped center for Red Haze as the speaker. He and Greg Jr. were walking toward the rec shack, probably to settle up, I reasoned. Another memory was triggered by that action. Damn, gots ta stop doin’ this shit to myself. That shit happened more than 40 years ago, and…and no matter how much I torture myself or rehash the past, nothing changes it. • 5 • Slowly, I came to my feet. Not only could I hear my bones cracking and snapping, I also felt them. The vision of a crab or lobster moving flashed in my mind’s eye. “Ouch,” I groaned when finally I was completely upright. For a moment I stood still to allow the feeling to return to my extremities and to regain my equilibrium. When my head had cleared a bit, I glanced back toward the court, and true to form, saw the yellow team warming up while they waited for the victorious red team to get back on the court. Farther down, I saw a couple guys on the gray team passing greenbacks to Greg Jr., who in turn handed the loot over to his Red Haze companion. In spite of my best efforts not to dwell on the past, I seemed to stumble through yesteryear with every action I saw, or thought that I had. Even watching the losers pay off the winners brought Mitchell back to mind. When we were young it was always my brother who collected our winnings. And although it happened only rarely, he was also the one who paid off when we lost. Well, why not? Of all of us, he was the most responsible, the most honest. That is, until…till that night, him and Sheila… “Fuck!” I screeched so loud that people on the other side of the court turned toward me displaying expressions of curiosity — which, of course, made me feel stupid. I kicked my feet into gear and pushed off toward the 32nd Street park exit. My ears were buzzing and my heart pounded out a staccato-like beat. I even imagined that my shuffling footsteps were in sync with Mitchell’s big body as he pounded himself into Sheila, and I hated myself. My self-hate was especially strong when I accepted that even after that night, I’d been so weak for her that I’d gone back to her, time and time again. Somehow all my self-recrimination, and decades of inner shame and guilt over the way my brother and I parted, all came flooding back, full force. The fact that he’d betrayed me with Sheila did not absolve me of my guilt, because I had somehow gotten past the whole thing with her (after a while), and this only served to increase the severity of my emotional self-flagellation and shame. But who knew that less than a month after returning to active duty in Vietnam, Mitchell would be killed? I certainly had no idea when I’d screamed, “Fuck you, nigga, you ain’t no brother of mine. I hate’cho ass!” What seemed to haunt me the most throughout the years was that pleading expression on his pain-ravaged face as he’d tried repeatedly to apologize to me. But no, I wasn’t having it. And so, he died with “I hate’cho ass!” as his last memory of me, his younger brother, the devoted tagalong who’d worshipped him all his life. Not that Sheila had fared that much better in the days, weeks, months, even years immediately following my inopportune intrusion into her apartment. I’d shunned, ignored, ridiculed, and abused her every time she came near me for more than four years. Even playing hoops did not provide me the solace and pleasure that it once had. Naturally, my game fell off, and my poor performances affected the team, causing us to lose games we were expected to win. But I was so far gone and enshrouded in bouts of anger and shame that nothing mattered. Not even the sudden lack of any real firm scholarship offers. For nearly two years I just lay around the house, doing nothing, living off my mother until she got tired of it. In response to her insistence that I not expect her to feed and clothe a grown man, I took a series of menial jobs, which provided me with just enough money to pay for my keep and have gas, beer, and weed money. A little more than two years after Mitchell’s death, my body and mind began to reject my sedentary lifestyle and the ravages of too much alcohol, pot, and days on end without sufficient sleep. Of the many who tried, it was Annette who finally broke through and scaled the walls of my emotional isolation. She would have tried harder from the beginning, but her load was large. Following her mother’s untimely death, she had a drunken father and younger siblings to care for while working low-paying, dead-end jobs to make ends meet. There was precious little time left over to babysit a grown man hell bent on self-destruction. She saw me at my worst, having deteriorated to the point that I’d slept in the car during a turbulent rainstorm and wound up hospitalized for pneumonia. She found time to visit me at Memorial each evening and dropped by the house to check up on me often after my release. Slowly, bit by bit, I came back to the surface and got a grip on myself. Things in my life incrementally started to work out fairly well. Annette and I drifted into an easy though undefined relationship, which provided me with stability and a reason to cut back on drinking and smoking pot. I landed a decent job driving a forklift for the Safeway grocery chain, and even took a few night classes at City College. Truth be known, at that point I had no real concrete plans or goals. My struggle was within me, learning to live with guilt, shame, anger, and the unfairness of it all. Of course, it wasn’t always easy going or constant progress. There were times when things would be going well, then I’d bump into Sheila, and my entire world would be rocked, shaken at its foundation. Because she usually appeared none the worse, unrattled by it all, I suffered an increase in anger and inner misery, not to mention a heightened sense of incompetence. The fact that she’d become even more seductive and alluring, and yes, more desirable, made our brief encounters during that period even more distressing. It also made my verbal attacks toward Sheila more vicious and vindictive — so much so that around the fifth anniversary of Mitch’s death, Annette used a bit of chicanery to get us to the same place at the same time — a party for Benny Calhoun after his discharge from the Navy. That night, she put her foot down and sternly insisted that both Sheila and I grow up, let go of the past, and look forward toward the future. That message was clearly meant more for me than Sheila, because Sheila barely had time to fling out what I termed a halfhearted “apology accepted, and I’m sorry, too, Milton,” before she linked arms with Benny. Hard to blame her after the abominable way I’d treated her for years. And even I had to admit that Benny cut quite the imposing figure that night. Standing a true 6’4”, dressed in his body-hugging seaman’s whites, the wave pattern on his short, esquire-cut hair, he was enough to make a person dizzy. The boy stood out and caught the eye of many of the ladies at the party. But that night he only had eyes for Sheila Knight, and within short order, the two of them disappeared, not to be seen again for several days. • 6 • As I turned onto Santa Fe Avenue and approached the parking lot at Country Farms Market, I saw an easily recognizable figure that made me suddenly aware, painfully aware, of the passing of the years for me. If ever I needed a reminder of the multiple decades that had elapsed between today and that homecoming party, the stooped-over figure I spotted in the midst of a circle of local wineheads, hobos, and homeless drifters in the parking lot brought home that fact. Even from half a city block’s distance, Benny Calhoun was easily recognizable. I suppose the fact that I knew that this parking lot was where he spent most of his waking hours panhandling alongside other rejects, societal dropouts, and other luckless folks in the area made him more readily discernable for me. “No,” I whispered to myself as his facial features became clearer. For more than 45 years our lives had been very closely entwined, conjoined, as we travelled the highway of life. With each successive step came mounting and conflicting emotions inside me. There was joy, because it was a relief to see that he was alive. A rash of recent storms had taken a particularly heavy toll on street people in our area recently, and no matter what, I was glad he wasn’t one of them. On the other hand, there was anxiety, because one simply never knew exactly which Benny personality they would encounter. Unconsciously, I slid my hand into my left front pocket (where I always carried my pocket change and small bills), preparing for his inevitable alms-seeking greeting. “Hey Milt o’boy, whas up wid’it baby boy?” he hailed from some five yards away. Rather than answer him, I fisted what I hoped was a banknote with a value of $5, or at most $10, and wadded it up inside my pocket. I came to a halt then extended my hand with the bill clasped inside it. This maneuver stopped and held him at bay. The brief and pained expression that flickered across his wrinkled, weather-beaten face as he pulled the money into his hand was quickly replaced with an angry sneer, which caused me to regret my not-so-artful dodge. But what was I to do? Benny reeked of urine, stale tobacco, sweat from his unwashed body, and the odor of alcohol oozed from his pores. His stiffened clothes carried a pervasive stench, not to mention the furnace that was his mouth nowadays. “So, how goes thangs, Big Ben?” I asked in an attempt to lessen the sting caused by my evasion. “Not bad for a brotha wit no roof over his head on Christmas Eve,” he replied in a dry monotone. “B-ba-but then a nigga like you ain’t givin’ a fuck ’bout me!” he quickly followed up, switching gears so fast that I stumbled back to avoid the heat from his hostility. He casually, nonchalantly unfolded the bill I’d given him, taking his time either to torment me, or to build up drama so as to feel justified when he launched his next attack. Much to my surprise, I didn’t get the reaction I’d anticipated. At first his eyes flew open, growing to nearly saucer-sized dimensions. Then he inhaled deeply and I watched a river of wrinkles appear on his dirty, unkempt, now frowning face. “Fifty bucks, huh? What’re ya tryin’ ta do, sucka, show off?” he spat in anger. “Well, fuck that. You can never make up for killing my woman and fuckin’ up my life. Go to hell, muthafucka!” He hurled the venomous denunciation at me with ferociousness unusual even for him. To top that off, he hocked up a vile, greenish-colored bile that had to have been buried deep inside of his ill—kept innards, and let it fly in my direction. It landed about eight inches to my left with a thud that, contrary to possibility, echoed loudly. Its reverberations were still ringing in my ears, even after he pivoted and walked away, leaving me stuck, spellbound, and stunned. “Damn,” I swore. Then I exhaled, trying to expel the putridness our chance encounter had generated inside me. I stood riveted to the spot, emotionally skewered, watching as he signaled to his waiting cohorts, waving the bill high in the air, as if to taunt me, I reasoned. The heavy honking of a horn behind me broke the spell. It may have been 10 minutes or 10 seconds that I stood there. I will never be sure. I just remember standing, watching as he led his little band of misfits across Santa Fe, stopping traffic in the middle of the block. Honk, honk! The insistent blare of a loud horn brought an end to my physical stagnation, if not to my mental anguish. When I stepped out of the vehicle’s path, I got another jolting shock to my system as a big, silver truck sped past. Emblazoned on the truck’s side was the word BUDWEISER. I turned right and headed for the 3lst Street intersection. When you lose the use of one of your legs, even partially, the simple act of crossing a busy thoroughfare requires a degree of forethought. Unfortunately, part of that planning forced me back to the signal light at the end of the block, which meant that I had to walk past the beer truck again. Coming directly on the heels of my heated exchange with Benny, this triggered another emotional blast from the past. • “Man, dem some big, strong-assed horses,” exclaimed Benny, excitement evident on his inebriated face. “What horses you talking about?” asked Bradley in response. His question seemed innocent, absent of malice, which I thought was evidenced by him turning away from Benny toward Kevin, and passing him a joint. As had become our custom during that particular summer, after playing sports all day, we would rustle up something to eat and just hang out together, usually in Kevin’s garage. There we’d smoke weed, listen to music, watch television, and clown around before going our separate ways. It was a commercial that featured two or three teams of the big Clydesdale horses pulling a wagon loaded with Budweiser beer barrels that had initiated Benny’s comment, him being impressed by all things powerful. Unpredictable as he often was, Benny became irritated by Bradley’s offhanded comment. “You know, them huge horses that the Budweiser Beer Company be breeding, that’s why they call ’em Budweisers. Come on now Brad-skee. Everybody knows that,” countered Benny, now being careful with his diction, but there was a slight edge to his tone. My inner radar went off, as did Kev’s. Our eyes locked; comprehension and mutual concern that things could easily get out of hand were silently communicated between us. With a sigh and an obvious attempt to be patient and to tread carefully — he’d obviously realized that by merely asking the question, he’d stepped into the slippery landmine that was Benny Calhoun’s mind — Bradley responded, “Oh, you mean the Clydes? The Clydesdale horses that the Budweiser brewery uses as their marketing symbol, right? Yeeaahh man, they’re strong as hell.” “Naw man, I meant what I said. Shit. Budweiser horses! You tryin’ ta be funny or something, dude?” Benny shot back, his voice rising, his eyes taking on that wild and dangerous slant that we all knew so well. The startled expression that appeared on Brad’s face spoke for itself and I was certain that he would retreat, avoid the head-on collision we were all heading toward. The four of us were frozen in one of those precarious life moments when two options are available, and everybody is holding their breath, waiting in suspense for…for that next inevitable tick of the clock. “Oh shit!” I hissed under my breath. Bradley chose that basically irrelevant gaffe by Benny to assert himself, and that simply could not turn out well for any of us. “Benny, there’s no such thing as a Budweiser horse, that’s just the symbol the beer company is known for, their trademark. They’re called Clydesdales,” said Bradley, speaking in slow, concise words. “But you ain’t the only person who has made that mistake,” he added in conciliation. But as expected, Benny was having none of that. He refused to be placated. “Hey honky, gittin’ sick a yo shit; always actin’ like you so damned smart and better’n everybody else. Well I’m gonna put my foot in yo white ass!” bellowed Benny, advancing toward Bradley menacingly. Both Kevin and I scrambled to intercede. • 7 • “Oohh, hey Pops, come on in, and Merry Christmas,” said Frieda, then she hugged me, kissing both cheeks, as was her way. I returned her hug, albeit rather limply. I was still unnerved by my stroll down memory lane. After we separated, she stared at me in such a manner that it was clear that to her I was wearing what she called my “Hey, where am I?” expression. My oldest daughter’s concern for me had been a constant in recent years, and it was on obvious display when she stepped aside and held her front door open for me to enter her house. Although she didn’t ask, I found myself replying to her silent question. “Merry Christmas to you guys, too. And no, nothing’s wrong, not particularly,” I said, immediately regretting those last two words. Her raised eyebrows, furrowed forehead, the jaunty tilt of her head, and probing eyes all served to affirm that sentiment. Her usual, naturally authoritative manner added to my discomfort, causing me to plunge even deeper into confusion. “Naw, naw, Annette, on my way over here to bring you guys’s gift, I bumped into Benny, and girl, you know how things can get with him, I mean, the boy was really on a good one this morning,” I stammered in a rush of words. Her alarmed expression and a deep, sharp intake of breath behind me combined to knock me completely off kilter. When I turned around and discovered Darlene, I became totally overwhelmed and discombobulated, so much so that I never heard her emotion-filled question. “My daddy! You seen my daddy? Where’s he at?” In near panic I slammed shut the curtains of my eyelids and shook my head vigorously as I struggled to slow the torrid pace of the multitude of thoughts, visions, and conflicting emotions racing through my head. Annette…Sheila! Frieda…Darlene! Sheila…Darlene, Frieda…Annette! The four, who were two, and yet still four, each jockeyed for control of my thoughts and my full attention. As a backdrop, Benny stood pointing his lifelong accusatory finger, indicting me anew. Even farther back loomed the larger-than-life apparition that was Mitchell. His lips were moving and I was certain that he was shouting, “Dammit, bro, what’da fuck ya doin’ here?” “Are you all right?” inquired Frieda, who was in fact Annette. “Where’s my daddy at?” yelled Darlene. Or was she really Sheila? “Here, I just came to bring this!” I shouted as I flung the wad of bills toward my daughter, who was too much like Annette for me to face at that moment. Then I turned, rushed through and out her front door, and limped quickly toward Santa Fe Avenue. “Wait, Pops!” “Where my daddy at?” “Fuck you and yo fifty dollars! Ya fucked up my life, nigga!” “Dammit, bro!” “Grow up, Milton. Shit, things happen in life.” I could not count how many times the combined voices of Annette, Benny, Sheila, Darlene, and Mitchell shouted out, pursuing me as I peg-legged as fast as I could. Thankfully, with each successive step they diminished in volume and I didn’t feel so constricted. And once I shot past that big, shiny Budweiser beer truck, all was silent. I didn’t hear a thing, and I didn’t feel anything, either. “So, Sheila, where’s Annette?” I asked. My head moved constantly from side to side. I marveled at the divergent terrains that I saw. On my left, there were groves of trees, crystal-clear waters, and people dressed in flowing white robes wandering about. They appeared very content, at peace, and everything was green, full of life. I heard soft music playing. I believe it was from flutes. The view to my right depicted a barren, empty, dust-colored land. For miles all I saw were big rocks, granite boulders, smoke, and I heard a low, rumbling, hissing sound. And there were no people in sight. “She went over there,” replied Sheila, pointing to my right. “You know her, Miss Goodie Two Shoes, always trying to save other people’s souls. This time it’s Mitchell she’s gone searching for,” she added with a snicker. “Man, imagine her surprise last year when I showed up over here on this side. Took me two years to get outta all dat hot dust. But I made it, no thanks to her or to you, Milton,” said Sheila. I could hear her voice rising and her tone becoming angry. “Sheila, Sheila, Sheila. Girl, when will you ever learn to stop carrying grudges?” I asked in anguish. I closed my eyes and shook my head. I was weary. “Dammit Milton, you’re still taking her side,” shouted Sheila. Her voice suddenly seemed to be coming from far away this time. “See what’cha done now, always defendin’ her? Now I gots to go back to da other side. All your fault, your fault, Milton!” she shrieked. I opened my eyes and turned right, toward the sound of Sheila’s voice. Out in the distance I spotted a dark, shadowy figure jumping up and down, shouting all kinds of obscenities toward me. The voice became indecipherable and eventually ceased altogether. “Milton Paige,” a deep echo sounded out. I looked around, searching for the source. I saw nothing. “Milton Paige,” that voice repeated. I grew frightened and I started to feel foolish, like I did quite often when we were young. “Ba-ba-but, but if Annette is over there, an-and I just saw Sheila; dat...that means that…that means that I-I’m…that I’m…”


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