Bernard Grant is an MFA candidate at the Rainier Writing Workshop. He lives in Washington State and has work forthcoming in Gravel and Barely South Review.
A month ago a man came to show us a Kirby. He poured juice on the carpet, then sucked it all up, the vacuum screaming. Pink soap bubbled up on the floor. Mamma bought the Kirby. Early this morning, wearing a wife beater and basketball shorts, he comes into the kitchen where I’m eating cereal. Winnie the Pooh laughs behind me. He pours a glass of orange juice and says he wants to take me out today.
Mamma comes in wearing a robe, sips from his glass.
“Aren’t you sharing germs?” I ask.
Mamma laughs. “What?”
“Only when it’s family it’s not germs.”
“Don’t worry about it, child. Did Mr. Leon tell you he wanted to take you out today?”
I tell her he did. At first I thought he was a stranger, and you’re not supposed to go with strangers. But his orange juice didn’t make Mamma sick, so he’s family.
We spend the morning at the park, playing basketball. He never says much, except when he whispers on the phone. When we go to the movies I eat too much popcorn during the previews. His phone lights up, and he says we have to go; he wants to visit his friend. The movie hasn’t started.
Lit by orange streetlights, the houses sliding by are smaller than the ones in my neighborhood. Barred windows, chipped paint, graffiti. The streets are dirty, marked with trash and holes. The lawns too. There are old rusted cars; some don’t have all their tires. The only place I feel safe on the east side is Grandpa’s house. When I ask to visit him, Mr. Leon says no, and then he says, “Stay quiet. Don’t tell your mamma we visited my friend and I get you some McDonald’s.”
He stops at a dark house, makes a phone call, and his friend runs out.
Mr. Leon turns to me, puts a finger over his lips.
I don’t speak—not now or after Mr. Leon gives him money, and the guy, who smells like nasty cigarettes, hands him a plastic bag bulging with yellow pebbles. I don’t speak when a lighter sparks and a flame tips into a glass tube sticking out of his mouth. Liquorice-smelling clouds his head, scatters. The only time I speak is on the way home, when McDonald’s slips by and he doesn’t stop. He doesn’t say anything either. I wish Mamma would have gotten sick, cause now he’s family.
My skin burns. Cousin Ray and me spent all morning playing out in the sprinklers, staying full off pecans and Japanese plums he picked from the trees. In three years, when I’m a teenager, I’ll be as big as him, and I won’t have to climb. I’ll just reach up and twist off plums.
We’re inside for lunch, sodas and Beanie Weenies. Uncle Walter pours half of my soda into a cup, but Ray gets to drink his straight from the can. The whole thing.
Back out in the yard, the grass is wet but it still pricks my feet. Uncle Walter rolls out the Slip ‘n Slide, a blue mat he put under the sprinklers. Every time I run onto the mat I fall back and hurt my neck, but I don’t say anything. I don’t whine that my back stings. I don’t stop running onto the mat either. I don’t want Ray to call me a baby.
I try a belly-flop, hear a smack and feel it. I can’t see the sunlight flashing through trees like before, just the street coming closer before my face hits dirt. Then I spit grass and realize being a teenager might not be so great.
At bath time—I’m spending the night—I take off my clothes and jump into the kitchen sink, but I can’t get all the way down.
“Get out that sink, boy,” Uncle Walter says.
“Why can’t I bathe in the sink? I used to bathe in the sink all the time, when—“
“When you was little, that’s right. You too big now.” He tosses his thumb over his shoulder. “Go on, now. Get in the tub.”
I climbed out of the sink. “If I’m so big,” I ask, “why can’t I drink a whole soda?”
“You ain’t that big.”
Mamma went to the grocery store. Cousin Ray’s in charge. He been home alone before. But he’s never been in charge. It doesn’t matter though because I can watch myself. I tell him just that. Then I go to the freezer to get a frozen spaghetti. He snatches it, lets it clank on the counter.
“I’ll make it,” he says.
I sit, pick and flick a red crust off the table. The table’s glass, and through it I can see my feet kick above the floor. His feet touch the floor when he sits.
The microwave beeps. He presses buttons but he can’t get it started.
I get up from the table. “A microwave is easy,” I say. “If you can’t use one, maybe you shouldn’t be in charge.”
“I got it.” He presses the black rectangle. The door springs open. The plastic on the frozen spaghetti isn’t cut, and I tell him so.
“You open it when you want to eat it,” he says.
“You’re supposed to cut it first, so it doesn’t blow up.”
I grab a knife. He grabs one too. Light skips off his blade. We’ve done this before, we’ve done it a lot, we even practice. Whoever stops the blade between two fingers wins. He swings. The knife rips the web between my thumb and pointer finger. One time I fell from a tree and ripped my shirt on the way down—the slice sounds like that. There’s blood on the floor.
Mamma’s gonna whip me.