Call It Dreamin' Deja Fiction 42 minute read

Deja’s View (Deja-Vu)

By

Everyday the same – déjà vu

Feelin’ like God owes me an IOU

When I was boxed, I had nothing to compare dis to

But now I see the other side; that some folks dreams do come true

Deja dragged the metal chair, with the cracked yellow plastic cushion up to the counter, stood on her tippy toes, and stretched to grab the bag of Fruity-O’s from the middle shelf of the cabinet. She poured herself a bowl of the red, green and orange loops, added water from the sink, sat down at the card table and mindlessly shoved spoonful after spoonful in her mouth, while watching an infomercial on a super-suction vacuum on tv. Deja wanted to switch the channel to SpongeBob Squarepants, but though her mother was snoring loudly on the sunken, old purple velvet couch, Deja was scared that changing the channel may wake her up. The empty fifth of Jack Daniels leaning on the leg of the faux wood coffee table warned her that the whoopin’ would be brutal this time should her mom be disturbed.

Quietly as possible, she placed her paper bowl and plastic spoon in the already overflowing trashcan and went into the bathroom to brush her teeth and do her hair. She liked her hair best when her Auntie Pam would cornrow it in maze-like styles; but since her Momma and Auntie Pam gotten into such a bad fight during a game of spades that the police had to be called, Auntie Pam had not been around.  So, Deja had taught herself how to make two perfect afro-puffs halo the sides of her oval, sand-colored face.   She then smeared Vaseline on her face like her Momma taught her to — before Momma got . . . “sick”.

She slipped on her sister’s old pink puffer-coat, grabbed her backpack, gently opened the door, took one step out almost stepping on a pair of worn gator loafers.  She looked up at the skinny figure that was just 2 inches away from her, and saw that is was Lucky (named so because he had been shot 6 times and showed no visible damage).

“Yo trick-ass Momma in dere?” he rumbled without releasing the Newport from his platinum-filled mouth.

Deja released the door handle without closing the door, took a huge step to get around him and started scurrying down the steps; only moving her mouth to bite her bottom lip–hard.

“Ya hear me, gurl. I’m talking to you. Must be retarded or something like ya damn Momma,” Deja heard him yelling as she ran down the 4th, 3rd, 2nd, and finally the cemented ground floor, which opened to the Johnson Park, donated by Teerod Johnson, a basketball player who was from the same projects (though Deja hadn’t ever seen him around there).

The park was already busy; though it was only a little after 6:00 a.m.  But time is insignificant in chaos. People were littered everywhere; litter rolled around endlessly –“ghetto tumbleweeds” her Momma used to call it.

Most of the people who hung out at “the yard” during the day were either young enough that a friend was anyone who was on the slide or swings, had a jump rope or any type of ball; or old enough that that they weren’t part of the gang or drug culture.

Grass didn’t grow much in this park, just at the edges.  It probably didn’t get a chance to grow cause folks were always sitting, stomping, or laying on it.  If folks ran out of room to sit on the picnic tables and play equipment, they would set-up areas on the ground and entertain as if they were in their own dining room.  This morning there was a group of women loudly gossiping and folding clothes together as they knelt on a large multi-colored patchwork quilt.  There was a group or girls, probably wasting time before they went to school, working their hands in a coordinated clap routine, singing,

I met my boyfriend at the candy shop
He bought me Ice cream
He bought me cake
He brought me home with a belly ache
Mama Mama, I feel sick
Call the dr
QUICK QUICK QUICK
Dr Dr, will I die?
Count to five and STAY ALIVE
1,2,3,4,5
I’M ALIVE

Several people rode bikes this way and that. Since many of the bikes were “acquired” many of the riders were too big for the bikes they had causing their knees to come up past the handle bars at ever cycle; or too small for the bikes, causing them to cycle the pedals with the very tips of their toes.

Deja cut across the park and made a right onto Smith St. As she walked against the wind, holding her head down only slightly to block her eyes from tearing, she slowly dragged her hand along the building that used to house a few businesses. The bumpy texture of the old stucco felt good to her opened palm. The building, like the prostitutes who would oftentimes lean on it, was stained with too much makeup—black tags and multi-colored graffiti advertising each artist’s need to be recognized in a place that you typically felt invisible.

Frank was in his same place, with his cart and an old, sleeping bag stuffed in the doorway of the old Pic n’ Pay. He wore wrinkles that said either his life was long, exceedingly tough or both; an easy toothless grin that said while his habits were bad, his heart was good. He, without a home, came to represent home to Deja: always constant, always there.

Deja offered him her own partially toothless smile, then turned right onto Lincoln Ave.—the beginning of the area everyone called the Jungle: full of color, life and outlandish beings. There was the constant underground hum of the subway, the click-clack of cheap high heels against the pavement, the pa-da-pop of gun shots at night, the staccato of the metal, street doors rolling up and down, the “who-aah” of the buses taking off, and the background singers crowing in Spanish, Spanglish, Farsi, and street.

She liked this part of her journey. She had made up a form of hopscotch, using the cracks in the sidewalks as her marks to skip in-between.

She saw her bus coming and quickened her steps. She stepped on right after some man carrying a large package wrapped in newspapers, slid her bus pass, and scanned the bus for the best seat. She decided to sit next to a chubby, East Indian woman wearing a McDonald’s uniform, who looked kind, yet exhausted although her day has just begun. Deja had seen her before and knew that she gets off one stop before hers: Nickel Avenue.

Right before her stop, a tall Black man with shoulder length dreads, Timberland boots and gray sweatpants got on the bus and started walking towards her seat. He stops two seats before hers on the opposite side and demands to a short, Latino man in blue coveralls, “Get the fuck up, so I can sit down.” Confused, the seated man continues to sit. Again the dreaded brotha demands, “Did you hear me Paco, Get the fuck up. Adios mother fucker.” Deja looks in his face. She knows what those eyes mean: jumping from person to person, simultaneously menacing and petrified. He’s sick too—just like her Momma. The bus doesn’t move until the seated man relinquishes his seat, with a look of resignation and a sigh of defeat.

The 20-minute bus ride seems to cover the same change and distance as a transatlantic flight. Even after 2 years, Deja’s journey makes her feel a bit wobbly every time she jumps off the last step of the bus. Here, it was so quiet and peaceful that even everyday sounds seemed piercing: a baby crying, a ball hitting the pavement. Noise is discouraged and disturbances are disparaged. Here, Deja felt that she should walk softly—definitely not a place for hop scotch. On the short walk to Hudson’s Elementary School for the gifted and talented, Deja tries to smooth her sharp corners.

Mrs. McGuillory, smelling of Tabu perfume and moth balls, shook her head disapprovingly as Deja walked into the school’s main office, “late again” she admonished  and slid the tardy slip across the table. Deja barely looked, grabbed the note and walked down the antiseptically clean hallway to her classroom, Room 32. This is the place where her stellar grades and genius IQ earned her a spot; but they really didn’t speak to her real journey to get here—day after day.

Deja tried to walk into the classroom as quietly as possible, but one of her backpack straps got hooked on the doorknob, causing Deja and her books to tumble onto the floor. 23 heads popped up and turned in her direction. For a moment, Deja froze, wishing she could be as invisible as she was in her neighborhood. Here, at Hudson Elementary, even without snafus such as this, she felt so conspicuous. She was an elephant in the dog show.

 

Ms. Marshall turned from the whiteboard and rushed over to help Deja with a smile that read, “you poor, pitiful child.” Ms. Marshall was sweet as Splenda towards Deja: sweeter than sugar, yet also artificial. Deja discerned that Ms. Marshall had quilted together the patches of what she imagined was Deja’s life from viewings of Law & Order, reruns of Good Times, and the Nightly News. Deja was her statistic and she was determined to be Deja’s hero—that white hero in every movie that turns the poor Black person’s life around. Ms. Marshall meant well, but her sweetness left a bitter aftertaste.

 

Deja’s momma, when she was feeling “good” would make Deja and her sister roll with laughter with her Ms. Marshall impressions. Her mom would hold her braids up into a bun on top of her head, purse her lips and begin to talk in a falsetto voice. Her momma really liked to replay the back-to-school-night story. Ms. Marshall literally stuttered when Deja’s momma walked-in wearing her blue slacks, white shirt with the bow at the neck, white fake pearl earrings, and a perfectly made-up face (momma could do more with 99 cent lipstick and eyeliner than most people could do with Mac). Ms. Marshall clearly didn’t expect Deja’s mother to appear at back-to-school night and she definitely was not prepared for her to look so—normal.

With one hand holding up her braids in a bun on top of her head and the other on her hip, her mother said in her perfected, “Ms. Marshall” voice shrill, “Oh Mizzzz-us Johnson, so nice to meet you.  Deja is such a fantastic little girl. We are so proud of her here.  Then her mother melody of laughter, with Deja and her sister picking up the chorus.

 

Deja’s mom would say later, in-between deep drags on a Newport, “What pisses me off so much is that, I may use a little dope now and again; but dat White heifer didn’t have to assume I was a crackhead. YouknowwhatI’msayin? Ima be dere for my child. It’s the principality of the damn thang.”

Deja’s Mom was big on the “principality” of things. As far as Deja could deduce, the principality of things had made her mother quit at least 15 jobs, lose a good apartment, stop communicating with her Grandmother and aunts, then finally land them in the Brown projects. Deja sometimes wished that her mom didn’t have to be so darn principled.

Deja made her way to the blue plastic chair connected to the desk and took out her journal. Everyday, at the start of class, the 5th grade was supposed to free-write about whatever was on their minds. Deja had watched many of her classmates go to the front of the class and share stories from their journals about a getting stung by a bee, a family vacation to places like Hawaii and Jamaica, and a visit from their Grandparents, who would come with loads of gifts. What could Deja share about her life? Her normal wasn’t their normal.  Her life would probably sound more like science fiction to her classmates; her family situation would be so alien to them.

So, Deja did her best, in her journal, and in her day-to-day at school, to blend. Write more here about blending. Trying to make outfits more like theirs-she like bright colors, girls there wore a lot of pink momma was like why you want all this pepto-bismal pink? A lot of jokes she didn’t get. Mom didn’t bring in stuff for snacks—no volunteering. Journal wrote about stuff that didn’t happen—more fantasy.

 

Most of the kids were nice, if not somewhat curious about her. As the only elephant in the dog show, she definitely got sniffed a lot. The questions would come:

“Why is your hair like that?”

“Can I touch it?”

“Do you wash it everyday?”

“Look, I was at the pool this weekend; let’s see if I’m darker than you.”

“Where is your Dad?”

That was the only question that made Deja feel coated in shame. The failings of Deja’s parents were the birthmark on her face that she could not scrub, could not embrace, could not cover. It was seen the moment you met her and Deja felt that no matter how brightly she smiled or her light brown eyes sparkled, the birthmark was there and it was what people noticed first.

She didn’t know where her Daddy was. She didn’t know who her Daddy was. She just knew that he must’ve been a bad person because anytime she got in trouble, her mother always yelled, “You acting just like your damn daddy- no good mother fucker.” One time, Deja and her mother were curled up on their velvet, purple couch together, watching Family Feud. Deja’s mother was playing in Deja’s hair—absent-mindedly twisting and untwisting various cotton-soft sections. Steve Harvey asked the question, “Name the #1 gift that fathers would like to receive on Fathers’ Day?” Deja, keeping her eyes on the TV whispered, “Momma, who is my daddy?” Her mother takes a bigger tuft of Deja’s hair a snatches so hard, that Deja is sure that she is now bald in that area; takes her knee and shoves Deja off the couch.”

“Why in the hell would you bring up that dumb mother fucker?” she screamed. He aint’ thinking about you. So, I suggest you don’t think about him.” But Deja couldn’t stop.

So she made one up. She may not have had a daddy in the Brown projects; but, at Hudson Elementary she did. So, when Anderson asked her if she had a daddy, she without hesitation replied, “Of course I do silly, he’s in army. He’s overseas right now. And most times when she had to write in her journal she wrote about her Daddy—Franklin Delano Moore. Her pretend Daddy brought her a lot of comfort and protected her from a lot of shame.

Deja was always in a rush to leave the school, but never in a rush to get home. The in-between was her favorite place. Mac, the late afternoon bus driver knew her and always gave her a big wink when she got on the bus. “Good Afternoon, Einstein,” he’d call to her as she walked to her seat. There were always the regulars on the bus: Mrs. Dinkins, who went to the library by Hudson Elementary everyday since her husband died and often talked to Deja about the latest book she was reading; Dequan, who was doing community service for getting caught tagging a few buildings; and Mac’s cousin, who was clearly homeless, but Mac allowed to ride in the back of the bus during the winter months. They were a Chex-Mix-type of family, but they looked out for each other.

The Jungle, the neighborhood Deja had to walk through to get home, was schizophrenic. The mornings, on her way to school, she felt the bustle: the business doors rolling up, the click-clack of cheap heels on the sidewalk, and the “who-aah” of the buses taking off. But by 4:00 when she was walking home, she could start to feel the warming –up of the hustle. Blue, plastic, milk crates with a piece of cardboard placed on top start being set-up for games of dice and illegal betting; the homeless people beginning to pander; storefront owners starting to stand outside to lure in customers walking home from work and to keep an eye out of suspicious activity.

 

Unlike the Jungle, full of color and pulsing with energy, Brown Projects, stayed consistently dull and yes, brown, throughout the day—day after day. Her friends had told Deja that there used to be a fence around the Brown projects, but some rich folks had decided that was discriminatory and fought to get it ripped down. Deja always found it funny because the fence still seemed to be there. People didn’t go in; people didn’t go out.. Something about the place was paralyzing.

Deja slowly made her way up the four flights up to #445, each of her steps on the metal stairs made a low gong. She took the key out of the front of her backpack and let herself in. Typically, she would walk in and her mom would yell out, “Dat’s you, Deja?? Today, it was loudly quiet, only the sound from the never-turned-off TV.

Deja’s mom rarely went anywhere, but Deja figured that she went to the store or to get her nails done in those kaleidoscope designs that she loved. Deja grabbed a Hot Pocket out of the freezer, then grabbed the yellow cracked plastic chair to crawl up to the microwave to heat it. At that moment, her sister, Porshe, walked-in from her day at the local middle school. “Wat up, “ she said while doing a playful tug on Deja’s ponytail. She opens the refrigerator, sticks her head in, “Where’s momma?” she asked.

“She wasn’t here when I got home,” replied Deja shrugging her shoulders.

Porshe opened up the freezer door and pulls out the empty, Hot Pocket box, “if you are going to eat the last hot pocket, you could at least throw away the box,” Porshe admonished while sucking her teeth and rolling her eyes. Deja just laughed, grabbed her hot pocket and plopped down on the couch. Shortly after, Porshe plops down beside her with a bologna sandwich and a glass of grape kool-aid to watch the rest of The Ellen Show.

“Deja” Porsche shakes Deja awake. Deja wakes to the shaded darkness of evening.

“Deja, Mom still isn’t home.”

Deja’s mind and senses slowly start to reboot. She sees the left-over trash from lunch on the table, hears Lester Holt’s voice in the background delivering the day’s news, smells Ms. Patterson’s chicken being fried next door, and feels the soft velvet of the couch on the side of her face.

Only then could she hear what her sister had said, “Mom still isn’t home.”

“Mom still isn’t home.” Deja finally heard her sister’s words.

She sat up and leaned to one side, putting most of her weight on her right arm, and looked at her sister’s expectant eyes. Porsche’s eyes said, “fix it, Deja.” Although, Deja was the younger sister, she was always seen as the smarter, more responsible one – particularly since she got accepted into Hudson Elementary. Deja’s mind started to zoom: she pictured Lucky’s lanky body leaning against the frame of the door this morning, her mother passed out above the empty Jack Daniels bottle on the floor. She couldn’t think about what to do because she was so focused on what she should’ve done. She started biting her index fingernail and thinking, “I shouldn’t have left momma this morning,”

 

She felt her throat tighten, but the tears wouldn’t come. The girls at her school cried so easily: a lost favorite pencil, a tiff with a friend, not being chosen to play the princess in the school play. To Deja, crying seemed like a luxury.

On Deja’s first day at Hudson Elementary, her mother, outfitted in a yellow sundress, hair held with a daisy barrette, and pretty fake-gold earrings in the shapes of daisies held her hand tightly as she walked up the school steps. When Deja started to cry when they were about halfway up, her mother stopped, sat on the steps and gently pulled Deja to sit next to her. She took Deja’s hand in hers and wiped Deja’s tears. “Baby, women like us, being where we from, ain’t got time for no tears. Frankly, ain’t a whole lot of time for feel; there’s only time for do. You can DO this, Deja. You are smarter than any of these kids in here. Go show them who Deja is. Who we all are.”

 

She sat up and leaned to one side, putting most of her weight on her right arm, and looked at her sister’s expectant eyes. Porsche’s eyes said, “fix it, Deja.” Although, Deja was the younger sister, she was always seen as the smarter, more responsible one – particularly since she got accepted into Hudson Elementary. Deja’s mind started to zoom: she pictured Lucky’s lanky body leaning against the frame of the door this morning, her mother passed out above the empty Jack Daniels bottle on the floor. She couldn’t think about what to do because she was so focused on what she should’ve done. She started biting her index fingernail and thinking, “I shouldn’t have left momma this morning,”

 

She felt her throat tighten, but the tears wouldn’t come. The girls at her school cried so easily: a lost favorite pencil, a tiff with a friend, not being chosen to play the princess in the school play. To Deja, crying seemed like a luxury.

On Deja’s first day at Hudson Elementary, her mother, outfitted in a yellow sundress, hair held with a daisy barrette, and pretty fake-gold earrings in the shapes of daisies held her hand tightly as she walked up the school steps. When Deja started to cry when they were about halfway up, her mother stopped, sat on the steps and gently pulled Deja to sit next to her. She took Deja’s hand in hers and wiped Deja’s tears. “Baby, women like us, being where we from, ain’t got time for no tears. Frankly, ain’t a whole lot of time for feel; there’s only time for do. You can DO this, Deja. You are smarter than any of these kids in here. Go show them who Deja is. Who we all are.”

They stood up and walked up the brick stairs and through the big wooden doors of Hudson Elementary together. That was 2 years ago and Deja hadn’t cried again since that day. She so badly wanted to cry now but there was Porsche, with their momma’s almond-shaped, dark brown eyes, looking at her for answers.

Just when life is in somewhat of a groove, even if it’s a bad one –there is a rhythm to things — the needle hits scratch—everything stops for a minute, the needle can’t move, and then the same sound is repeated. What Deja heard, “you have no one.” She realized in this moment was that she and Porsche were truly alone, without their momma. She couldn’t think of one person to call, to reach out to for help. Now that she assessed the situation, it was time to move the needle.

Deja grabbed her sister’s puffy coat and headed out the door. “I’ll be right back,” she said. Closing the door before Porsche could protest.

Deja ran down the metal steps. Clank, clank, clank. The park was full, as usual, but the little babies on the swings were replaced by teenagers flirting, jonesing, gossiping; the picnic tables no longer had older men playing cards, checkers and chess, but supported teen boys talking about the girls on the swings. Giraffe-like street lamps were the May pole for several groups of people weaving in and out. Deja scanned the crowd and saw Benny.

Benny was sitting at the edge of one of the picnic tables—the flurry of gnats flying around the swirl of smoke rising from his Newport was almost pretty—a ghetto Cirque De Soleil. “Benny, have you seen my Momma?”, Deja asked breathlessly.

“Hey dere little lady,” Benny said without ever taking the cigarette out of his mouth. “What now, you looking for your Momma?”

 

“Yes, have you seen her?” Deja didn’t know exactly what Benny did, but he was like the mayor of Brown projects: always sharply dressed; always had a new ride that no one touched, and he usually knew the happenings.

Benny took a deep drag on his cigarette, squinted his eyes and stared up at the acrobatic gnats flying above his head. He blew out a large stream of smoke-making the gnats change their routine—looked directly in Deja’s eyes and said, “Go home, little lady.”

“Bu… But, my”

“Go. Home,” Benny repeated.

Deja turned around and did as she was told. This time her footsteps didn’t even make a sound going up the metal stairs.

It was a light knocking at the door that woke Deja up from a fitful sleep. Benny was there. “Let’s go,” was all he said.

Deja didn’t grab her coat or wake Porsche. She just followed Benny.

There were people still at the park, but it was quiet. Whatever was happening at that time, people didn’t want broadcast.

Benny cut across the park, crossed Hawthorne and made a right on to the alley behind Chang’s Mart, where they sold groceries, liquor, lottery tickets, black hair supplies and just about anything else they could squeeze into the tiny store. He stopped as soon as they reached the end of the alley and got away from the strong stench of the overflowing trash receptacles.

“Look now, gal, I ain’t want yo biness in the street. Dats why I sent you home earlier. When we talk, we talk. Just us. Okay?

Deja nodded.

“I tried to get yo momma to go home, but she in a bad way—ain’t listening to reason right now. She might listen to you.” Then he just started walking again. Deja followed, walking in the cloud of cigarette smoke trailing from him. The haze of smoke matched the fog in Deja’s mind. She followed Benny for around five minutes until they ended up on a street of different colored row houses: some with boards on the windows, some looking as if there was a Grandmother who woke up and baked cookies every Saturday for her Grandkids and hosted family dinners every Sunday.

They stopped at the fourth one. It was brown brick with covered windows. The only story it’s outside appearance told was – neglect. Benny led Deja towards the front door but then down some stairs, he threw his cigarette down, put it out with the right toe of his Timberland boot, and said, looking at Deja “You ready?”

He opened a metal door and let Deja in. The air immediately became still and thick, like a full laundromat in June with all the dryers running. The only light came from the glow from an overhead oven light in the kitchen that was over to the left of the long rectangular room that Deja and Benny stepped in. The gray cement floor was littered with beer cans and empty food wrappers; there were five or six old, stained couches of various colors and styles pushed to the middle of the room; only one person lay face down on one of the couches—a woman—somebody else’s momma maybe—yelling in her sleep. Deja thought she must be having a terrible nightmare.

The rest of the room’s occupants sat on the edges of the room, leaning against the walls—as if they all needed something more solid than cushions to hold them up. Clinging.

Deja’s eyes zig-zagged the room when she spotted that striking Robeson red hair. Momma?

“Momma?”

Her hopeful voice, in a place where hope dies and dreams end, pierced muted light through the fog of despair.

“Momma?” The question, the voice, so starkly dissimilar to anything in that space that it didn’t fade in the background or become apart of the scene; it just hovered in the air.

“Momma?”

Deja walked slowly over to the corner where a woman with red hair and a large blue bomber jacket was slumped over. The woman’s head was so deeply tucked into the jacket, like that of a turtle, that you only saw a tuft of her hair at top.

“Momma?”

The woman didn’t move.

Deja got down on her knees and grabbed the woman’s right hand. She saw that they were freshly manicured and recognized them as her mom’s. “Momma?”

Slowly Deja’s mom raised her head. She looked at Deja the way one does at photos found in a buried box in the attic: there is a familiarity, but not an instant knowing. Her half-opened, glassy eyes took on the look of a kid at the amusement park when they are having fun, but then realize that they don’t see their parents: from elation to fear in a second.

Momma?

Deja’s mom put her head down and disappeared back into her shell. Benny tugged on Deja’s shirt and jerked his head in the direction of the door indicating that it was time for them to go. Just when Deja opened her mouth to protest, Benny bent down, and scooped her up and started to carry her out. The woman on the couch, clearly still in the midst of her nightmare, continued to moan loudly. Deja, with her head over Benny’s shoulder stares at her unmoving mother and thinks, never has a sound captured her feelings so perfectly.

As soon as they got out of the house, Deja let out the breath she’d been unconsciously holding, but she didn’t release her grasp around Benny’s neck. Being cradled, like a newborn, was exactly what she needed right now. She relaxed her head on Benny’s tattooed neck and let herself be carried away.

With pants sagged at least 4 inches below his thin waist, Benny carried Deja through the streets, though the night air until they made it to the gates of Brown Projects. He put her down, handed her a roll of bills and said, “Be easy. I’ll be in touch.” And then he walked away—pants sagging, slightly limping.

Deja looked down at the wad of money in her hand and instinctively stuffed it in her right pocket. She walked past two teenagers heavily making out on the one of the brick walls to the stairs. She made it up one flight of stairs before her legs couldn’t hold up her problems any longer. She sunk onto the cold, metal staircase and cried. Echoes of hiccups, sniffles and whimpering filled the hallways where pain wasn’t a visitor.

But, misery doesn’t like company in the hood. It’s already overcrowded, so within minutes, someone opened her door and yelled, “Shut up with all that fuckin’ noise! Shit, some folks gotta work in the morning!” And then slammed the door.

For a moment, Deja stayed crouched down with her face in her lap; but then she got up and willed her leaden legs to get her up to unit #603. She and her sister, Porsche, needed to figure out a plan.

Deja struggled to make a straight part in the middle of her hair; but, her eyes were swollen from too little sleep and too much crying and her brain was churning so fast that focusing on something so minute seemed impossible. The vision of herself in the bathroom mirror– holding a pink comb in her left hand- became blurry as Deja’s eyes started to fill with tears again. Just then Porsche walked in and took the comb out of Deja’s hand.

“Come ‘ere, “ she said, signaling with her head for Deja to follow her to the family room.

Porsche sat down on the worn, purple velvet couch with her legs slightly ajar; and Deja took her place on the floor between them. Porsche then began to make tic-tac-toe parts across Deja’s head and placed a thin layer of coconut oil in the parts—just as Momma would do. She finished by placing Deja’s hair in two puffy ponytails held together by purple elastics. It was Porsche’s way of singing Deja a lullaby—giving her comfort the best way she knew how.

Momentarily, Deja was soothed. But, she knew that she had to go.

She grabbed a Pop-Tart package out of the box on the counter, grabbed her sister’s puffer coat, and backpack and started to head out of the door. She looked back at Porsche and said, “When you get back from school don’t forget to call SNAP to let them know that our EBT card has been lost. That money that Benny gave me isn’t going last forever. Love you.” Then she shut the door behind her.

She and Porsche decided last night that they needed to let the world think that their mother was there. In the suburbs, folks were scared of the IRS; in the projects they were scared of CPS. Deja knew that if she didn’t show up for school, somebody would become suspicious. She also knew that many of the neighbors in Brown projects felt that the only way you could build yourself up, was to knock others down. That’s what you do when you feel stuck—you don’t feel as if you can move up or out, so you just push others back and down. Folks that she had called Auntie, cousin and Uncle wouldn’t hesitate to call CPS if they got wind that their mom wasn’t around.

So, Deja made her way down those metal stairs, which seemed to have become steeper lately- or maybe she was heavier.

Actually, everything seemed somewhat different this morning: the graffiti that she normally thought was like gorgeous, bright jewelry accessorizing her hood seemed ugly; she realized that Frank, the friendly homeless man who greeted her daily on the way to school, smelled of fresh cigarettes, old liquor and soiled underwear. And when she walked into Hudson Elementary School, instead of just knowing that she was different, every part of her felt different. She smelled the coconut oil that Porsche had put into her hair earlier and worried that everyone could smell it too.

“Your presentations will be next Thursday. Please divide your tasks amongst yourselves,” Ms. Marshall in reference to their history group project.

“I can type up the report section because my parents just got us a sick new MacBook Pro,” offered Cameron, an eager, blond-haired classmate.

Deja looked down at the pencils on her desk until they started to blur together. Parents, computer, parents, computer, kept summersaulting in her head to the point that she felt almost dizzy.

“Deja, Deja, Deja,”Ms. Marshall summoned.

Deja slowly looked up, feeling almost as if she had just awoken from a deep sleep.

“Deja, do you feel like joining us today?” Ms. Marshall questioned rather sharply.

Deja tried to speak, but couldn’t find the words. She felt everyone in the class looking at her—the girl who did everything to be invisible. She crossed her legs and pushed them beneath her chair, clasped her arms tightly across and around her body and began to slightly quiver, in spite of herself.

“Alright class, time for recess,” Ms. Marshall said although it was still 3 minutes until the bell actually rang. The students clomped out of the room–everyone but Deja. She knew that Ms. Marshall meant for her to stay.

When the last kid walked out, Ms. Marshall walked over and closed the door. She walked over to Deja, who was still sitting at her desk, put her hand on Deja’s shoulder and whispered, “What’s going on, Dear?”

All Deja could hear was her mother saying, “Ain’t no use in crying,” as her body quivers turned into quakes that jostled her shoulders and her tears chased each other down her face and off of her chin.

 

 

continued from Deja V

Deja’s face felt tight from her mask of water and salt. She knew that by now her tears and snot had formed white trails down her face, tracing a map of pain. She was angry that she accidently had left her classmates postcards of her life’s journey. She wanted to pass through Hamilton Elementary—this part of her journey—like she was on sand, leaving no footprints. But with water, footprints in the sand make an impression. And Deja’s tears today had made an impression.

“Is something wrong, Deja?” Mr. Jackson, the school counselor asked from the other side of his metal desk. Thankfully, when Ms. Marshall couldn’t get Deja to talk, she ushered Deja, one hand softly on her back, to Mr. Jackson’s office, so she didn’t have to face her classmates when they came in from recess.

 

Deja considered Mr. Jackson’s question. She had learned since attending Hamilton that besides speaking proper English, there were differences in the way White people and Black people talked. Perhaps because Black folks were used to budgeting everything—including their words; or maybe because people in the hood didn’t have time for foolishness—Black folks didn’t mince words. Had she had the same breakdown at home, the question would’ve been something akin to “What in the hell is wrong with you, girl?” But White people always built up to the main question, with softer question such as, “Is something wrong, Deja?”

For a minute, Deja almost giggled, imagining Porsche, her mom and she laughing at possible comebacks, “No, Mr. Jackson. Nothing is wrong. I just go ape-shit crazy and start crying in the middle of class all the time.” But as quickly as she almost giggled, she felt sad again with the realization that her mother wouldn’t be home for her to laugh with later.

So, she looked at Mr. Jackson, bit her lip, and came up with the best lie she could. “Well, our class was talking about the History project and I realized that I really don’t have the materials I need to do my part. I don’t want to let my group down.”

Mr. Jackson’s face went from red to a light yellow. This was a problem that he could handle; he could be a hero today. He took on a serious, yet compassionate face that made Deja wonder if he had to practice that when he was learning to be a counselor. He opened his office door and let Deja know that he would be right back, softly closing the door behind him.

Deja looked around at his orderly office, until her eyes settled on the pictures flashing across the screen of his computer: pictures of him, his two girls and wife throughout the years. What would this man understand about her problems, Deja thought? At just that moment Mr. Jackson walked in with a grocery bag filled with office supplies and rolled poster board. Deja did her best to look relieved. If only scissors and glue were the answers to her problems.

She took the bag, gave Mr. Jackson a quick hug, and made her way down the halls of Hamilton before the rest of the kids got out of school. The huge clock over the front doors of the school warned that she had only 3 minutes to the next bus run, so she ran as quickly as she could—backpack and grocery bag hitting against her body in a rhythmic beat as she ran down the familiar streets, making it just in time.

Deja slid into the empty 3rd seat and looked around at her bus mates. “Always check out your surroundings,” momma said. Deja noted that although she normally got on the bus a little later and these were technically different people, everybody was the same: tired, colorful, some hopeful; some hopeless.

By the time Deja made it to unit #603, she felt as tired as some of the ladies she saw on the bus who took off their shoes, as soon as, they got on the bus and rubbed them back and forth over the grooved metal flaps on the floor (the poor-woman’s massage). And from the lifeless look in Porsche’s eyes, she wasn’t alone. Porsche stood by the stove stirring boxes of macaroni and cheese mixed with canned chili with the wooden spoon that their mom had used to cook for them and to spank them for as long as they could remember.   Heck, there were times that momma would pull the spoon out of whatever she was cooking, hit one of them upside the head, and then go back to cooking. Funny how you miss even the bad stuff when you miss a person.

“How’d it go with SNAP?” Deja asked while taking off her coat.

“They talkin’ bout could be 6 daggone weeks,” Porsche responded. Howinthehell do they expect people to make it 6 weeks without buying food if they lose dey EBT card?”

Deja thought about the money Benny gave her–$250. There is no way that would last them 6 weeks, considering they had to pay their part of the rent still. She went over grabbed two bowls and ladled out Porsche’s concoction. The two girls sat in front of the TV and watched a rerun of Modern Family, while they silently ate dinner. Afterwards, both girls did their homework and watched Martin reruns until they fell asleep—together again on the couch.

At first Deja worked the rapid tapping in her dream, but then she quickly realized that someone was frantically knocking at the door. Deja stumbled over to the door and peeked out the peep hole and saw the top of Porsche’s head. At first, she was confused, wasn’t Porcshe on the couch asleep with her, but she looked over her shoulder quickly, saw the white comforter with blue flowers on it crumpled on the ground and frantically opened the door. “What in the hell, she exclaimed,” as she came face to face with a Porsche whom she barely recognized.

Hot pink lip stick coated her full lips; their mother’s best earrings swung from her ears; poorly applied eye make-up made her look either abused or like an addict. In their mom’s heels she stood like deer stands for the first time. Deja closed the door and screamed, “What in the hell, Porsche? What in the hell?’’

Porshe didn’t move.

Deja’s voice went up an octave. “What in the hell were you doing?”

“We need money, Deja. You the smart one. I ain’t going nowhere anyway. It’s no big deal. It’s just sex,” she shrugged. “You wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t forgotten my key. Now go back to sleep, you got school in a couple hours,” Porsche said, as she walked past Deja and dropped a wad of bills on the table in front of the velvet purple couch.

Continued from Deja VI

With a newfound quickness, Deja leapt over the arm of the velvet coach, grabbed Porshe by her braids, and pulled her down to the floor. Unaccustomed to wearing high heels, Porsche easily tumbled, knocking Deja and a fake crystal lamp to the ground with her. Deja scurried and threw herself on top of Porshe’s chest and began slapping her—one hand after the other— Slap! Slap! Slap! Slap!

“What in the fuck, Porshe!” Deja shrieked. Slap! Slap! Slap! Porshe pulled her hands to her face, squeezed her eyes tight. Deja’s eyes were closed tightly too. She just kept swinging her arms, emotion fueling each rotation until eventually Deja rolled off of her and lay on the floor exhausted and breathing heavily. Porshe got up, got the white comforter with the blue flowers off of the floor, tossed it on Deja and walked to their bedroom, without saying a word.

It was the first night since their mom wasn’t home that the girls didn’t sleep in the same room together.

Deja stayed on the dirty, linoleum floor, next to the fallen lamp, behind the purple couch because as each day passed since their mother left, things like where she slept seemed to matter less and less.

The floor was cold and unsparing underneath her when Deja woke up the next morning, but she didn’t move for a long while. She let the night’s events replay in her mind. She and Porsche never even argued much. Momma had always told them, “When you poor, Black and a woman, you got enough to folks to fight to be fightin’ each other.”

But Deja wasn’t fighting Porshe last night; she was fighting their circumstances and the pain of where they had taken them. That linoleum floor was fitting: It too was backbreaking and bitter.

 

She couldn’t go to school that day. She didn’t get dressed, brush her teeth, or eat anything except for the cold strawberry pop-tarts that she and Porshe shared once Porshe came out of the bedroom. They both sat with crumbs, regret, and shame sprinkled between them watching t.v. until there was a pregnant knock at the door.

As soon as Deja opened the door, their Aunt Pam whisked in as if she had been there yesterday, instead of the almost 2 years since they had last seen her after she and their momma got into a huge fight during a spades game.

“Child, get your aunt sumthin wet befo I pass out. Them damn steps liked to kill me. Whooo-Lawdhavemercy, “ she exclaimed fanning herself with one of the free papers the homeless people gave out. “I’m too damn old for dis shit. That daggone elevator wasn’t workin last time I was here. Damn shame how they do us. Deja, Porshe, ya’ll come here and let me get a closer look at cha. Whoooooo-Lawd, yall done growed!”

Deja and Porshe got wrapped up in the cool, rapid wind that was Aunt Pam. She had a way of feeling like a breath of fresh air while taking your breath away simultaneously.

“Dis place look like a rodeo done took place here. Yo momma would have a fit. Ya’ll start cleaning dis mess up and I’ll start fixing us some decent dinner.”

Deja started to say that there weren’t any real groceries around for her aunt to cook when there was single knock at the door. Aunt Pam opened the door and Benny walked in weighed down with bags of groceries, walking with a wider gate in order to ensure his slouched pants didn’t fall completely down. He walked right in, knowing the layout since all the apartments were essentially the same in Brown, dropped the bags on the kitchen floor, looked at Aunt Pam, and mumbled, “aight, holla at chall in about 2 hours.”

By the time Benny got back, Unit #609 looked and smelled like somebody cared: wafts of cinnamon from sweet potato soufflé, ham and macaroni and cheese floated above faint breeze of Pine Sol. Porshe, Deja and Aunt kdfj were cackling in the kitchen about the time their Uncle Stevie decided to put a Jheri Curl in his hair. Unbeknownst to him, the back half of his hair fell out, while the front half hung down in long, greasy, spiral curls—making Stevie feel young again. No one had the heart to cause him to lose his newfound strut and tell him that he was bald in the back.

Aunt Pam was wiping tears of laughter from her eyes when Benny broke up the fun.

“Whad-up lil’ lady? Heard you ain’t been to school,” he muttered, looking pointedly at Deja, while making his toothpick cha cha back and forth between his teeth on the right side, hands deep in his jean pockets. “Dat ain’t gon work.”

“It’s only been one daggone day,” Deja thought; but she knew better than to say it aloud. She just grabbed some paper napkins and put them on the table.

“See about being dere tomorro. Aight.”

“Okay,” Deja responded averting her eyes down.

Aunt Pam broke the tension. “Ya’ll sit down so we can eat. Benny wait ‘til we tells you bout Stevie and his backwards George Jefferson hairstyle,” and immediately fell into a fit of loud laughter again.

Deja hadn’t felt that full in a long time. It wasn’t the food; it was the gathering—the talking and laughing, catching someone’s eye when you found the same joke funny—the connection. She realized her mom had been gone long before she left; and that she and Porshe had been lonely long before they were alone. Oddly, this realization strengthened her.   They could get through t because they had been getting though.

Then she leaned in and grabbed herself a 3rd serving of homemade pound cake.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My intention is for Black people to love themselves and each other. It sounds somewhat silly, I guess; but oftentimes my people are overwhelmed with negative images, bad news, and stereotyped characters about us. I’d like to flip that script. I’d like to remind us, as often as I can, how incredible we are. Read more

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