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Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?: From the Projects to Prep School: A Memoir

Overview

“Lyles paints a detailed, thoughtful picture of race relations in the 1970s . . . Highly recommended.” — Small Press Review

A memoir of race and education, this is the story of a girl who grew up and out of the Cleveland projects in the 1960s and '70s.

While growing up in Cleveland, young Charlise Lyles experienced turbulent events including race riots and a neighborhood murder. Yet she was inspired to appreciate literature at a young age, and ...

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Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?: From the Projects to Prep School: A Memoir

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Overview

“Lyles paints a detailed, thoughtful picture of race relations in the 1970s . . . Highly recommended.” — Small Press Review

A memoir of race and education, this is the story of a girl who grew up and out of the Cleveland projects in the 1960s and '70s.

While growing up in Cleveland, young Charlise Lyles experienced turbulent events including race riots and a neighborhood murder. Yet she was inspired to appreciate literature at a young age, and she spent her days reading—and also often searching for the estranged father who taught her that love of learning.

Despite starting in the “slow class” at an aging school on Cleveland's east side, Lyles had a thirst for knowledge and drive for success that would open a door to new opportunities. Granted a scholarship to a prestigious prep school in a wealthy suburb, the vibrant teenager finds herself presented with a bewildering set of new challenges—and a new direction in life.

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Editorial Reviews

Morning Journal
A fascinating literary memoir from the viewpoint of a little girl who did dare to disturb the universe she was born into . . . Lyles has given a vivid picture, one laced with generosity, humor and insight, of growing up poor without giving up.
— Laura Kennelly
Midwest Book Review
Blacks and whites sharing the same schools are a foregone conclusion in the modern day, but as recent as forty years ago, major challenges were faced . . . [A] story of arriving in an extreme majority white prep school during such a time it was completely unheard of. Facing a new set of challenges while maintaining a desire to learn, Lyles’ story is a moving one indeed . . . A solid piece on those who faced challenges during the civil rights era.
Call & Post
Lyles speaks to the experiences many of us have of growing up Black. She touches on issues of having an estranged parent, the wealth of living in poverty, navigating two very different social universes and finding one’s proper place.
— Vanessa Jones
The Plain Dealer
Lyles straddles multiple worlds as she comes of age, and her longing for the attention of a feckless father registers on every page. Her clear, detail-rich memoir shows how she constructed an identity—before graduating from Smith College and eventually returning to Cleveland.
— Karen Long
Pajiba.com
An enthralling slice-of-life look at what the city once was, what it has become, and what life was like and continues to be for those in the forgotten projects . . . The politics of racial equality—the black militants that brought order to the projects vs. the idealism of her mother—tumble within Lyles as she grapples with what it is to be an Afro-American woman . . . An engrossing read and highly recommended.
— Akhirnya Akhirnya
Morning Journal - Laura Kennelly
A fascinating literary memoir from the viewpoint of a little girl who did dare to disturb the universe she was born into . . . Lyles has given a vivid picture, one laced with generosity, humor and insight, of growing up poor without giving up.
Call & Post - Vanessa Jones
Lyles speaks to the experiences many of us have of growing up Black. She touches on issues of having an estranged parent, the wealth of living in poverty, navigating two very different social universes and finding one’s proper place.
The Plain Dealer - Karen Long
Lyles straddles multiple worlds as she comes of age, and her longing for the attention of a feckless father registers on every page. Her clear, detail-rich memoir shows how she constructed an identity—before graduating from Smith College and eventually returning to Cleveland.
Pajiba.com - Akhirnya Akhirnya
An enthralling slice-of-life look at what the city once was, what it has become, and what life was like and continues to be for those in the forgotten projects . . . The politics of racial equality—the black militants that brought order to the projects vs. the idealism of her mother—tumble within Lyles as she grapples with what it is to be an Afro-American woman . . . An engrossing read and highly recommended.
School Library Journal
A memoir told through evocative language and with clear-eyed precision. Lyles writes about her experiences with both America’s mid-20th-century urban racial dysfunction and her own intellectual blooming . . . She moves back and forth with grace and an ever-growing awareness of how her parents created a smart, well-read girl in spite of poverty . . . This is essential reading for all American teens.
Washington Post - Book Reviewer
Lyles evokes the anxieties involved in going from the projects into the world of scholastic upward mobility. But the real subject of her memoir is another kind of education: what she learned as ‘a girl growing up Afro and American at the edge of a new era.'
The Morning Journal - Laura Kennelly
A fascinating literary memoir from the viewpoint of a little girl who did dare to disturb the universe she was born into . . . Lyles has given a vivid picture, one laced with generosity, humor and insight, of growing up poor without giving up.
Pajiba.com - Akhirnya Akhirnya
An enthralling slice-of-life look at what the city once was, what it has become, and what life was like and continues to be for those in the forgotten projects . . . The politics of racial equality—the black militants that brought order to the projects vs. the idealism of her mother—tumble within Lyles as she grapples with what it is to be an Afro-American woman . . . An engrossing read and highly recommended.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781598510416
  • Publisher: Gray & Company, Publishers
  • Publication date: 8/7/2008
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 260
  • Sales rank: 498,564
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Charlise Lyles was born in Cleveland in 1959. She is an alumna of Hawken Upper School, the A Better Chance program, and a 1981 graduate of Smith College. Lyles is the co-founding editor of Catalyst Cleveland, now Catalyst Ohio magazine, which analyzes urban school improvement issues. Under Lyle’s leadership, Catalyst twice won a Clarion Award from the national Association of Women in Communication as well as awards from the Ohio Society for Professional Journalists and the Press Club of Cleveland. In 2009, Lyles was a finalist for a National Association of Black Journalists commentary award. In 2008 she was selected as a Fellow in the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs/Jouralism at the John Glenn School at The Ohio State University. After ten years, Lyles left Catalyst in 2009 to pursue other ventures in eduation equality and creative writing. She currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The No. 14 bus runs east on Kinsman Road, straight through the steel heart of Cleveland. I stepped on at East Fifty-fifth Street as the bus headed uptown to Mount Pleasant. That’s where the people who worked at the steel mills lived.

They were men forged from cauldrons of molten metal. We lived in Mount Pleasant before we moved to the King-Kennedy Estates public housing project. I used to see them coming home in the evenings, gleaming like tin men, glistening sweat and metal sprinklings. After working all day in dim foundries, they could look up at the grayest sky and feel lifted. Some years, that sky stayed dull as the day after Christmas all year long. Many a soul in this northern city just couldn’t take it. But the steel men, they did fine. For they carried home paychecks full of overtime and spent them on long, green Ford Gran Torinoes, Buicks, Chrys lers, and sometimes Cadillacs. With the money left over, they bought two-family houses in the nice neighborhood of Mount Pleasant on the East Side, far from the West Side where the white people lived.

And in summer, the black steel men painted the porches of their new homes in shiny coats of red and yellow, blue and green. From my seat in the back of the No. 14, I watched their pretty porches slide by like carnival tents.

“They make that long money working at Bethlehem Steel,” Momma was always saying. Or, “Republic Steel pays good money, enough to buy a nice house with a porch.”

Momma was a hard-working woman, too dignified to pout about her disappointments in life. But some days, dis gust got the better of her. And words like lemon and salt squeezed bitter off her tongue, stinging my open adolescent wound—an absent father. “We coulda bought us that house in Mount Pleasant instead of ending up down here in the project if your father coulda got a job in one of the steel mills,” she would say, then purse her lips in regret.

But my father, Charles “Skeeter” Lyles, was not a man made of steel. Time after time he had searched, and still no mill would hire him, something about a statement in his Navy discharge papers.

Even when I was in kindergarten, when he still lived with us, he spent his days jobless, out roaming the stratos phere where love and astronomy collide. He looked skyward and swore that the stars were shining in broad daylight. “You just can’t see them because the light of the sun is drowning them out,” Charles Lyles explained to me. “But they are there. Oh yes, they are.”

At night, he gazed on stars and counted. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. Those are the Big Dipper, or Ursa Major. See, those seven there are the Little Dipper, or Ursa Minor. They all have names like little girls: there’s Maia, Taygete, Electra, Merope, Atlas, Pleione. And see Alcyone, at the bowl and handle there? She is the brightest of them all, just like you. These over here to the east are Cassiopeia. See, they’re shaped like a lady in her chair in heaven.”

And in winter skies over the shivering lip of Lake Erie was his favorite, the Zeta star. Three times in the course of eight years, Zeta twinkled. It looked like it was winking, just like Marilyn Monroe, the movie star that Charles Lyles liked a lot. The twinkling happened when one star passed in front of another, Charles Lyles said. This was called an eclipse. Zeta could be seen more clearly with something called a telescope—which I imagined was a long pair of glasses. But Charles Lyles could feel enough of Zeta to revel in her light.

“Skeeter, who told you all that stuff about stars?” my five-year-old self demanded to know.

Other times, he pointed to clouds piled up high in the sky like soapsuds mountains and said, “Those are cumulus clouds.” Or he would point to a red sky at dawn and an nounce, confident as a rain dancer, “Gonna be a storm today. Gonna pour down this evening.” Or, “Look at those curly ones there, Sugarbabe. Those are cirrus clouds.”

“Come on, Skeeter,” I begged. “Tell me how you know.”

Impressed with his celestial savvy, I reported to my Sunday school class at Mount Olive Baptist Church that Charles Lyles, my father, could find his way around heaven. And that he also knew what kind of clouds God slept on.

That was a lot more than I could say for old bald-head Reverend Berry. For all his preaching, he did not seem to know the real road map that led to the Lord. His face went blank as a turned-off TV set when we Sunday school students gangstered him in the corridor to ask what God’s “Great Big Kingdom” looked like. And did God have a living room? And did he have a painted porch to sit on in the evenings and watch the sinners go by on their way to hell?

I was proud that even though Charles Lyles did not make it to church often like some Sunday school students’ daddies did, he was obviously privy to special information from heaven.

But it did him no good, his hours idle, his pockets empty. Too often, that sky, gray as a cemetery, descended on his soul, landing him dead drunk off a bottle of Thunderbird wine, hopelessly, painfully earthbound at the Kinsman Bar and Grill.

That is where I hoped to find him as I rode the No. 14 bus up Kinsman Road that summer day in 1974. Nine years had gone by since he had left me, my mother, two sis ters and two brothers. Since then, I had seen Charles Lyles only half a dozen times or so—maybe. They are times I could no longer remember. We now lived in the King -Kennedy project, a place of brown brick and cinder block buildings, hallways, steel doors, gritty tiles, concrete and tar-topped playgrounds, ice-cream trucks, rats, murderers, and incinerators. Charles Lyles had never come there to visit us. But at fourteen, I was forgiving.

There was much to tell Charles Lyles. A month before, upon my graduation from ninth grade at Kennard Junior High School, all the English and social studies awards had gone to me. “Outstanding.” That’s what my teachers at Kennard Junior High School called me. “Miss Lyles is an outstanding young lady.”

But most outstanding of all, I had been awarded a $12,000, three-year scholarship to attend the Hawken Upper School in Gates Mills, Ohio, a private school for rich white kids way out in the suburbs. For grades ten through twelve, my books and everything would be paid for.

Hawken, I had been told, was ten times better than East Tech or John Hay, the high schools where most kids from the projects went. Hawken had no more than fifteen students to a class, while East Tech had thirty-five or more. Hawken had a huge library full of books, maps, and mag azines. A big red barn stood over cows with moody eyes big as a Kennedy silver dollar. An art studio had a potter’s wheel. A theater with dressing rooms was under construc tion. In the math lab, a computer talked in lighted green letters. Classrooms faced a lush forest that stretched for acres. And the French teacher was really from France. In the spring when I visited Hawken, three teachers, including the French teacher, had told me they wanted me to come to their school.

Plus, I needed to report to Charles Lyles that I would be leaving home to live with a schoolteacher whose house was closer to the Hawken School bus route. Our place in the project was too far away and we had no car, no way for me to get to Hawken. My new bedroom would have flowered wallpaper, a set of books about almost every country in the world, and an electric typewriter.

Plus, Charles Lyles needed to see that I was grown-up now, with real breasts that fit into a regular ladies’ size bra, not no training bra. With all my heart, I hoped they would bloom even bigger into beautiful bosoms. My bushy hair now puffed to my shoulders, except on a day like this, when Momma had convinced me to imprison it in a pony tail and braids. (She was worried about boys checking me out.)

So I dropped two quarters in the No. 14 fare box to ride up Kinsman Road. I was going to find Charles Lyles. And I was going to tell him that Charlise—the daughter he had chosen to name after himself—was about to do some thing brave and remarkable in the world. I thought he ought to know about it.

He would be proud. He would brag about me to his buddies at the bar. They would order another drink to ease their envy. They would scold their own children: “Why can’t you win a scholarship to private school like Charles Lyles’s daughter did?”

“East 130th,” the bus driver called. Too excited to sit any longer, I slid off the vinyl seat, pulled the bell, and bounced down the back steps onto Kinsman, right smack in front of the Shrimp Boat restaurant. The smell of frying fat thickened the air. Sweet ketchup, fries, and footlongs.

The Kinsman Bar and Grill was a few blocks away. The bus pulled away, belching fumes. I headed up the avenue.

My low-top Converse tennis shoes smacked the pave ment. Doubt smacked at me. Suppose he wasn’t there? Charles Lyles was a traveling man, always moving from one joint to the next. I had heard my Aunt Cora say that. For his whereabouts, my family commonly relied on friends and relatives like Aunt Cora to report infrequent sightings. “Saw Charles the other day on East 130th.” Or, “Saw your daddy at the bar up on Kinsman.” I relied on this last report.

BEER and wine. Beer and WINE. Pink and green neon beckoned from the window of the Kinsman Bar and Grill.

The wooden screen door slammed behind me, forbid ding a fly entry. Inside, it was dark and dank as a basement. A man was parked on a high-standing bar stool.

“Hi. Have you seen Charles ‘Skeeter’ Lyles?”

He smiled a broad, short-toothed smile. “You Charles’s little girl?”

I knew he knew the answer.

“Hey, Pursey,” he called to someone on the other side of the bar. “This Charles’s little girl.”

Pursey appeared around an old Coca-Cola freezer, tickled as could be. “I coulda told you that. She got that Lyles fo’head. Broad and tall, just like Charles’s.”

“It sho is that Lyles fo’head,” the other man mused. “She got them cowlicks too.”

“Have you seen Skeeter?” I asked flatly, annoyed, but pleased that the Lyles clan’s distinguished features could be so easily identified by total strangers, like royalty or some thing. “Do you know where he staying at?”

“Ain’t he staying up on East 147th Street with Mary?” the nameless man asked Pursey.

“I b’lieve that’s where he stayin’, lest Mary done kicked his ass out.”

“Wait a minute now. Don’t be talking like that in front of this young lady.”

Yeah. I was an outstanding young lady and hadn’t done anything to him. He sounded like he was mad at Charles Lyles and it had nothing to do with me.

“You know what house number on 147th?” I was ready to go.

“I don’t know the address,” said nameless. “But I know it’s the first apartment building, three stories, you come to after you cross Barlett Street. He stay up on the second floor.”

“OK. Thank you.” On my way out the door, Pursey tried to trip me up.

“You tell your daddy he better come ’round here and pay me what he owe me. Else we goin’ have some business to tend to.”

“F’get chu, ole pointed head, high-booty thing.” I flung the words back, dismissing him with a smart-aleck flick of my wrist, once I was outside and well on my way up Kinsman toward 147th Street.

He had made it sound like Charles Lyles was mean to people on purpose. Maybe he was. Maybe he would tell me to get lost. Or send me back home to my mother.

The strap on my new red vinyl purse dug deep into my skinny shoulder. Packed inside were seven paperback li brary books that I believed had to be hauled everywhere I went, lest I miss a minute to read.

A No. 14 bus whizzed by, headed back down Kinsman toward King-Kennedy, toward home. Maybe I should turn back. There was lots to do. The summer reading contest at the library had to be won. The first team to read and report on fifteen books would win two tickets to see Al Green at Blossom Music Center. Those books had to be read. I could visit Charles Lyles some other day—after me and Desiree Kincaid, my reading partner and best friend, won the contest. There was really no time for this unpredictable man who was supposed to be my father.

And who was this Mary woman? What if she was a mean old bitch who answered the door, just outright lied and said Skeeter wasn’t home?

Even my big sister Linda had said it wasn’t worth trying to go visit Charles Lyles. “He was no ’count,” she said. “Never sent us no money.” It was true. He did not take care of us the way Fred MacMurray on the TV show My Three Sons took care of his kids.

After four blocks of frenzied indecision, I looked up. East 146th Street. Too late to turn back now. Some force mightier than my better judgment pulled me up the avenue.

My black tennis shoes, accented by two-toned socks (red and blue) bounced me down East 147th Street. Hugging my narrow hips were red low-rise, elephant -legged jeans, flapping like propellers as I stepped. Outlining my bosom’s progress toward womanhood was a knitted tank top from Petries Apparel, downtown. Pulling at my shoulder was the shiny red vinyl b.k.a. “wet leather” purse from S. S. Kresge, also downtown. My hair was cornrowed tight as crochet stitches. Though new wire-framed, stop sign-shaped glasses, just like Don Cornelius wore on Soul Train, I looked straight ahead. Past porches. Past gerani ums. Past aluminum-framed lawn swings rocking in the stale breeze. I was going to find Charles Lyles. I had some thing important to tell him.

The purse of paperbacks pressed my arm numb. Finally, after crossing Barlett Street, I approached the three-story apartment building, cautiously. Inside the glass door were six narrow metal mailboxes. Number 4 said “Mary Robinson, Theodore Taylor.” Penciled in over Mr. Taylor was Charles Lyles’s name. I touched the button. It spit a buzz.

At the top of the dimly lit stairs, a door creaked open. What if he peeped out, saw it was me and went back in side? What if he didn’t recognize me? What if he mistook me for one of those Girl Scout cookie peddlers or some square selling candy to pay for a class trip to Washington, D.C.?

This was stupid. I should just go on home. Linda had told me not to take my butt up on Kinsman anyway.

“Who knock?”

“It’s me, Sugarbabe.”

A pair of dusty, square-toed loafers stepped onto the landing. “Who is it?” It was a man’s voice, deep, demand ing, and annoyed.

He leaned over the railing and studied hard. The dim hall hid his face, but I felt my presence in his and knew he was my father. He did not know me.

“It’s me. Sugarbabe. Lillian’s daughter. Charlise Lillianne.”

“Well, ain’t this something. Sugarbabe come to see old no good Skeeter—talkin’ ’bout you Lillian’s daughter,” he faked it. “Like I don’t know who you are.”

Not a bad comeback, I thought. He seemed real happy to see me, excited even. I wished he wouldn’t say that “old no good Skeeter” stuff.

Standing akimbo at the top of the steps, he towered like a man with untold powers, whole planets at his command.

“Come on, Sugarbabe. Come on up.”

The book-load on my shoulder fell away to feathers. I had come all this way.

As I climbed up, there he was, radiating at the top of the stairs, his smile beaming light out of darkness deep in his life. Gapped but otherwise perfectly straight teeth grinned that irrepressible grin that Charles Lyles had be stowed like a crown on all his children. And a beacon shone from the sheen on his brown, broad forehead—that Lyles fo’head.

Beyond the glow, my father’s face was a funny cross be tween Al Green and Ray Charles, with just as much rhythm and just as much blues. Old-timey sunglasses shielded his eyes. Surely, at any minute he would break out singing and stepping a Temptations tune.

He led me into a dingy room where a black and white television blinked a bad picture, then pointed me to a sag ging, soiled sofa. I sunk into its worn embrace.

“You sure have grown up since the last time I saw you. How old are you now, Sugarbabe?”

“Fourteen. My birthday was June first.” Stupid, I scolded myself silently. He probably knows when your birthday is. He was there the day you were born, the day the flash floods put all Cleveland under water.

“I know when your birthday is.” He turned toward the television. “Hey, I’m getting ready to watch the Indians beat the hell out of Minnesota.” Silence. “So how you been doin’, Sugarbabe?”

“Fine. How you been doin’?”

“Just fine. How’s your mama?”

“Fine.”

“How your brothers and sisters doin’?”

“Fine.”

I sat. He smoked Lucky Strikes, unfiltered. I stared at his yellowed fingertips and the cigarette between them like a piece of chalk. He sipped something from a dull green, plastic tumbler. He looked bored and kind of sad, his eyes vacant.

I decided to tell him the good news right away. That would cheer him up.

“Hey Skeeter, guess what?”

“What, Sugarbabe? What you got ta tell?”

It all gushed out on a geyser of excitement.

“I won me a $12,000 scholarship to Hawken School way out in the suburbs and if I get good grades, I might be able to get me a scholarship to go to a good college, any one that I want to, even out of state, like New York or Massachusetts or Washington, D.C., or someplace famous like that, if I can be admitted.”

“Well that sho is something, Sugarbabe.” He beamed that smile. “I always knew you were the smart one. The way you useta ask me questions all the time. Hawken? That’s that school where them rich Jewish kids go, ain’t it? That sho is somethin’.” His delighted laughter echoed off the empty walls.

I was still unclear about Jews. Though I had read the diary of Anne Frank, I still wasn’t sure about why the peo ple in Germany wanted to kill them so bad. But I nodded my head. Yes. Hawken was where the rich Jewish kids went to school.

There was more to tell.

“Plus, since the Hawken School is so far from where we live, I’m gonna be living with my biology teacher, Mrs. Moore, from Kennard, my old junior high school. She of fered to let me stay with her because otherwise I wouldn’t have no way to get to school.”

“And where do she live?” Charles Lyles was curious about my life.

“Out off Lee Road in the Lee-Harvard/Seville area.” That’s where all the black people who were schoolteachers or social workers lived in nice little houses with trim.

“Well, ain’t you somethin’, Miss Sugarbabe.”

I sure was. And I wanted Charles Lyles to know it. And now he did.

He smoked some more, blew rings toward the ceiling, then glanced over at me, looking kind of puzzled.

Maybe he thought I was going to ask him for some money or something. Momma said he ought to help me out a little bit. But I wasn’t worried about it. My summer job with the City of Cleveland cleaning up playgrounds would help pay for school clothes and whatever else I needed. That’s how I paid for my new stop-sign glasses from Dr. Frederick’s Optical, downtown. I would put his mind at ease.

“The scholarship is going to pay for my books and everything, and for me to ride the school bus near Mrs. Moore’s house. And I been working over at Aunt Cora’s house all summer cleaning. Plus, I’m in the summer jobs program—we clean up playgrounds all over the city—so I’ll have money to buy my own school clothes.”

There. That ought to stop him from worrying. Though Momma had said he ought to help, she had also taught me, “Don’t go around beggin’ people to do things for you. You’ll make folks hate you.” I was loyal to that lesson.

Everything was quiet again. And that bored, distant look seeped over Charles Lyles’s face again. Maybe he didn’t like my hair in these stupid cornrow braids.

“What’s that you got all lumpy in that purse, Miss Sugarbabe?” he asked. “Look like you carrying ’round a load of bricks.”

“Those are my books I’m reading for the contest.”

“What contest?” he asked. He really was kind of inter ested in me.

“Me and my friend Desiree Kincaid, we entered a contest at the Woodland Branch Public Library. Whichever team reads the most books in six weeks and writes the best re ports on them will win two tickets to see Al Green in concert at Blossom Music Center.”

I was in love with Al Green. I started to add that Al Green was sexy and his songs made me tingle in the hip area. But I discerned that this would not be an appropriate thing for an outstanding young lady to say on her first visit with her father. It might be too sophisticated for him.

“What books you reading, Sugarbabe?”

“You wanta see ’em?” I unzipped, unsnapped, and un buckled my vinyl purse. Rich Man, Poor Man, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, A Hero Ain’t Nothing But a Sandwich, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Go Ask Alice, and The Learning Tree poured out, all in paper back. Title by title, I laid each out for display on the dirty sofa. Then I babbled on about how Go Ask Alice was about a girl who ran away from home. “I think she takes dope,” I explained of the heroine. And on about how Cuckoo’s Nest was about a man who got put in the crazy house by accident.

“Is that right?” Charles Lyles took in my report. Then he was quiet for a moment. “You like to read, huh?”

“Yeah, me and Desiree both. But she like to read them old -timey books like Wuthering Heights about this man and this lady that fall real deep in love and then they go stand on the hillside in the wind.”

“Follow me,” Charles Lyles said, rising and walking across the linoleum floor that creaked like a midget’s box spring under a giant. To the rear of the apartment and his bedroom we went.

The stale, suffocating funk of my father’s inertia clung to the walls of his room—wine, sweat, and some lust that had not been for my mother smothered the air. It was a funk that Charles Lyles could not camouflage with Irish Spring soap and aftershave.

But on the floor beneath the cracked, water-stained walls was a treasure trove: books and books and books lined up along the baseboard. They traveled the length of the wall, turned the comer, and continued on down the adjacent wall. On they went: tall books, short books, pa perbacks, hardbacks, thin books, fat books, novels, text books, Reader’s Digest Condensed, Time/Life Mexico, A, B, F, S, and T-U-V World Book encyclopedias, history books, a book about airplanes, a book about stars, books.

I sucked in the intoxicating breath of discovery. Then rejoiced silently: My father could read books. Charles Lyles read books! Even though Momma said he dropped out of school in tenth grade, Charles Lyles read books!

But everyone said he was such a good-for-nothing. Momma didn’t mean to say it, but it slipped out. My sister Linda had said it too. Even that man at the bar had bad mouthed him. But Charles Lyles read books. How could someone who read so many books be bad?

All the money never sent home to take care of us kids— here it was, spent on books, precious books that Charles Lyles had saved for this moment when he would share them with me, not my sisters, not my brothers. But me alone, his Sugarbabeeeeeeee!

It was I who had stumbled upon the true Charles Lyles, a man who read books, hundreds of them. A man with a li brary of his own like a president or a millionaire in a mur der mystery. “Go on. Take any one you like,” he urged.

I wasn’t no sucker. “Which ones are best?” I asked cau tiously, testing to make sure he had actually read them.

He pointed to a hardback with a picture of a mean -looking bulldog of a man leaning on a cane. “This one is about Winston Spencer Churchill, the prime minister of England during World War II.” It was a tome, fatter than anything I had read so far, even Rich Man, Poor Man.

“You read that whole book, Skeeter? No you didn’t.”

“I sho did, four or five years ago,” he said too proudly to be telling a lie.

He picked up another, thick as the Bible, with a white paper jacket yellowed at the edges. Hirohito, Emperor of Japan.

“This man is still living,” my father said of Hirohito. “Read this one. It’s good. Tells you all about World War II.”

All I knew about Japanese people was that there had been a war and they had been bombed real bad with a new type of bomb. Winston Churchill seemed closer to home. His mean muzzle growled at me. “Can I take this one?”

“Go on. You can take it home with you if you promise to bring it back.”

“OK. I promise. Hey, Skeeter? Where you get all these books?”

“Saved ’em. Bought them at the Goodwill store up on Kinsman and down on Buckeye Road. Or people give ’em to me ’cause they know I like to read. Go ’head. Take an other.”

I was a disciplined reader. “Nope. Not till I finish this one, then I’ll come back for King Hirohito.”

“Emperor Hirohito,” Charles Lyles corrected.

We parted with my promise to read Winston Churchill in a week or two and return it.

I was hardly out the creaky door and down the dim stairs when my celebration began. Just wait. Oh, praise be to me and my serendipity. Charles Lyles was a great man of knowledge, practically a man of letters, a man of the world who knew of powerful men in faraway lands. The bus ride home was a movable jubilee. I snapped my fingers to the music of my discovery, music only I could hear. To the beat, I bobbed my head and twisted my butt, strutting my stuff in my seat—not caring if others saw me, in the back of the bus, by myself, acting a fool in public just like Momma told me not to do.

That night, I couldn’t wait to tell my big sister Linda with her signifying self. She was going to Case Western Reserve University way across town on scholarship, but stopped in as usual to “borrow” some soap powder. Mom ma wasn’t anywhere around. I turned Bob Barker on the TV up louder just in case, and took an icy sip from my cup of Kool-Aid.

“I went and saw Skeeter today up on Kinsman. He got a whole lot of books and stuff and he let me take some of them with me.”

Linda’s jaw dropped just for a moment: Yes, her little sister had the audacity to hunt down Charles Lyles. Then she cut to the point. “Did he give you any money?”

“Nope. But look.” I propped the Churchill book up on my lap for display. “See? He let me borrow this book.”

Linda snatched it from me, ran her forefinger along the binding, breathed in the aroma of the old book, studied its cover front and back, then promptly returned it to my lap. “Who wants to read about an old bald-head white man smoking a cigar?”

“Skeeter said he was the president of England during World—”

“I don’t care what Skeeter said. He shoulda gave you some money if he wanted to give you something so bad, in stead of some useless book.”

I was ashamed to admit that I had decided not to ask about money.

“Where is he staying at, anyway?” She sat down at the kitchen table, which was not in the kitchen because the kitchen was too small.

“Somewhere up on Kinsman.” I deliberately withheld all details. What if Linda showed up demanding compen sation for a lifetime of unpaid child support? She might scare Charles Lyles away from me. He would never trust me again.

“Where up on Kinsman?”

“I forget exactly where. You know I don’t know my way around up there too good and stuff.”

“What was it near?” She poured Kool-Aid and sipped. I could see plots racing in her almond eyes.

“The Two Cousins beauty products store,...

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