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Chapter 1: First Memories
Afterward, putting Mama's and Otis's things back in the exact same place where we had found them was a serious matter. If we got caught messing with their things -- as happened once -- we'd be beaten out of our wits. But playing with their things was not the absolute cardinal sin. The most forbidden thing of all was playing with the tiny balloons stashed in socks and hidden all over the house. These balloons were filled with heroin. I used to set out to find them, like going on an Easter egg hunt. I'd open the socks and play with the colorful balloons as if they were my secret toys. They were like marbles. I liked to put them in piles -- all the blue ones together, the reds together, the yellows together. Whichever color there were the fewest of seemed the most special. I liked the danger of it too. I took great care to put the balloons back just as I had found them. (Even today I can look at something, take a mental picture of its position, remove it, and replace it in the exact same spot.) It made me feel grown up to handle these jewels of my parents', as if I were part of the same business as all the people I saw coming to the house; it made me feel like "somebody."
It was the late sixties, when my mother Cynthia and my stepfather Otis were among the biggest heroin users and dealers in Long Beach, California. From the outside the house didn't look like a dope house. My parents had lots of money from being in the drug underworld, so they could afford a "front house" that drew no suspicion or complaints from the neighbors. The house was a place where my parents' clientele and whomever they chose to bring with them could always, no matter the time of day, walk right in and shoot their dope indoors, off the streets. Many of their customers would nod themselves to sleep right there on the living room or bathroom floor and stay for hours and hours.
These friends and customers of my parents had a code word to use when they came to the house and only my sisters and I were there -- which was most of the time. They introduced themselves as our "uncles" and "aunts." We had many, many uncles and aunts. My favorites were the ones who nodded out on the couch or in the bathroom sitting on the edge of the toilet, with saliva dripping from their mouths. Then I could steal the coins from their pants pockets or the pouches hidden inside their bosoms. I never took paper money, just coins, because the grocery store clerks gave me strange looks when I tried to buy candy bars for my sisters with paper money. Also, I didn't know the difference between a five-dollar bill and a hundred-dollar bill. So I stuck to stealing coins from pockets. I liked the dimes best.
We were too young and innocent to be afraid of the strangers who entered the house throughout the day and night. The frequency of their visits even gave us the feeling that they somehow cared for us. Sometimes they asked when we last ate, or simply noticed that we hadn't, and they would come back with boxes of doughnuts and pop. Sometimes prostitutes brought their tricks there, but my mother didn't like that. She told us to let her know if it happened so she could beat those women up.
Even with the filthy, ragged clothes on our backs, we had no comparisons to make that would tell us that our fragile lives were being neglected. How were we to know our lacking everything was any different from children's lives in other households? The clothes we wore, the way we smelled -- it all fit, like junkyard guys working alongside each other, nobody thinking he smells worse than the next guy. In those long wallowing hours of hunger pangs, we lived in the same ragged clothes, the same stench, and the dry salt of our tears, but we were together. And in our misery we shared many moments of laughing and chasing one another in childish games that almost made us forget the hours, days, and weeks of abandonment.
Aunts and Uncles
Our parents were almost never home. The house seemed large because my sisters and I were alone and trapped in its emptiness. We made it bigger to enlarge our days there. But in fact the house was quite small. In the long days of being left alone, we got to know the interior of the house like our own bodies. It was our whole existence.
The four of us ranged in age from three to eight. My sister Charlene was the oldest, then me, Birdy, and Carlette. In this seemingly huge old house we had gone from crawling to standing to walking, like the evolution chart that shows a monkey-man developing into the first human being. Those pictures come to mind when I think about how my sisters and I grew up.
I can still see my sisters' faces from those many years ago. Yet at that time we never gave a thought to how we looked or what we wore on our tiny bodies. The only times we noticed ourselves were when I used to walk around in my stepfather Otis's shoes and when my sisters put on my mother's different wigs. Then we would prance around the house, laughing and giggling at how we looked.
We found all the hiding places in the house, like closets, kitchen cabinets, and even suitcases. But the attic was our favorite. We would climb on top of the dresser in one of the closets, then onto the high closet shelf. From there we reached the ceiling and the square sheet of wood that we pushed up in order to climb into the attic. When the sunlit days in the house became too long for us, we climbed up into the night of the attic to take our naps. In the attic we felt hidden from all our fears, and we could always sleep soundly, like babies in their cribs.
The attic ceiling wasn't so low that we felt cramped. The wooden beams peaked in the middle, where we could stand straight up and play around. We made up games to forget we were hungry and alone, but we didn't talk that much. I had a serious stutter up until the age of ten or eleven, way after I had been taken from my parents. So we didn't console one another with words as much as by our togetherness.
The attic had a window that faced out over the front porch of the house. We looked out through that window at the world, as if the attic were our private tree house. There, level with the highest trees, we could see all the busyness of people. We could see a chain of stores several blocks away. Those golden arches and an empty Ronald McDonald wrapper that I kept symbolized food for me. From this attic window we watched and waited and hoped to see our mother coming home.
The emptiness of the house provided no home life for my sisters and me, but we felt no real pain other than our empty stomachs and the drafty stench of loneliness that curled us up and rolled us into tight balls of one heartbeat. Later, a television appeared in the house, and we laughed to it. Then one day the television disappeared, as if it had never been there.
An old white woman lived in a house behind us. Every morning she would put food out for us. She somehow knew that we were being left to starve in our own house. We counted on her food.
Sometimes, when no adult was around the house for days, this was the only food we had.
Every evening, after the sun went down, we lay in fetal positions in the attic, looking out of the window into the night sky. We waited and waited for that next morning, so we could rush down from the attic to the porch to eat whatever the old lady had put there for us. Our idea, strange as it sounds, was that we wouldn't go to sleep at all. We were so hungry that we just felt like watching for the morning to come and feed us.
Of course we could never stay awake all night. Eventually we would fall asleep. Birdy, who was younger than Charlene and me, always fell asleep first, even before Carlette, the youngest. As soon as she woke up in the morning, she would wake the rest of us, because she was afraid of being awake while we slept.
Of all of us, Birdy was the wildest. Being neither the oldest nor the youngest, she had no special role to play, so she could just be her true self. She must have been about four at the time. We often had to chase her around the house, and if anyone got us into trouble, it was usually Birdy. She didn't worry. She didn't have to steal money or scrounge for food; Charlene and I took care of that, and Birdy made us laugh when we felt truly abandoned. She put on our mother's high- heeled shoes and danced around until she fell down. She made up games- she put one of Otis's hats on me and pulled it down over my eyes so I couldn't see. Then she led me around the house by the hand, laughing as I bumped into the furniture. Then it was Charlene's turn to have the hat on, and then Birdy's. When I led Birdy around, she walked fearlessly, knowing I wouldn't let her bump into anything.
It was Birdy who first found the attic. It was Birdy who climbed into the kitchen cabinets. It was Birdy who first ventured outside to taste the food the old lady had left on our back porch and to drink from the pitcher of milk -- that girl loved milk! -- that the old lady always left beside the food.
Whenever Mama was at home, we'd often see her come out of the bathroom sweating, gently touching her face with her hands, as if she were sleepy. Then she'd lie down on top of the bare mattress. The heroin in Mama's veins gave Birdy the chance to do what she loved to do. Softly raising Mama's head and bringing it down into her lap, she'd comb her hair, while the rest of us sat on the bed and watched quietly. We would just wait, watching, as if we all knew there was so much more happening than just us being there with our mother.
When my baby brother Dean was born, he was left alone with us too, even though he was only an infant. I tried to take care of him and give him his bottle. My mother said Carlette -- we called her "Bug" -- was Charlene's baby, and Dean was mine. Dean was supposed to take the place of another baby brother, Carl, whom my mother had put me in charge of a year or so before, but Carl had died of crib death.
One morning when Birdy was standing under a tree next to the fence, drinking her milk, I came out of the house rubbing my eyes. Suddenly out of nowhere a cat dropped down from the tree onto Birdy's back and dug in its claws. It happened so fast! My body didn't move even as my mind was reaching out, trying to wrestle the cat off my baby sister. I could feel this cat all over her and her hands above her head, trying to grab the cat and push it off. But I was frozen with fear and couldn't move.
Then the cat took off. Birdy was on the ground screaming, still trying to get the cat off her head, even though it had already gone. I was finally able to run to her, stop her arms from swinging around in the air, and reassure her that the cat was gone. Birdy still thinks her big brother got that cat off her. I never did tell her the truth.
After that we were afraid to eat outside. Being the only boy, I was elected to tiptoe out to get the food the old lady continued to leave for us. Or I would jump out of the window and run to the store to buy candy when I got coins from the pockets of the people who nodded out. But I was always scared to leave my sisters, scared to be gone in case my parents suddenly came home.
The only other person who really understood my fear was Charlene. My mother and Otis had told both of us never, ever to leave the house. If they ever caught us outside or found the front door unlocked, we would be whipped. They didn't want us to attract attention to the house in any way. They didn't want anyone to call the police to report a lost child. They feared cops stumbling into their operation, or burglars coming in to steal their heroin. I later learned that my mother feared that burglars would kill us kids so we wouldn't be able to identify them.
Whenever we were afraid of getting whipped, we would race one another to get to the bathroom first. Birdy was often the one to sound the alarm for all of us by dashing to the potty when she heard our parents coming through the front door. It was as if our parents' and their friends' constant use of the bathroom to shoot heroin had made it a sanctuary. Whoever got there first -- and it was usually Birdy -- was given the same level of respect as people sitting on the toilet cover with a tie around their arm.
One time my parents caught me coming back from the store carrying a whole bunch of candy bars inside the front of my shirt. Otis's face was full of anger, and my mother just said, "Don't kill him. You mustn't kill him." I don't remember too much after that. The extension cord Otis used tore right through the pillow that I held against my body, and the beating seemed to go on forever.
My Father's Shoes
Otis was my stepfather. The only memory I have of my biological father is also one of my earliest. That memory still has the power to raise its head from a pool of painful childhood events, just like my mother raising up her head from the floor, blood pouring out of her face.
We were all in the bedroom, where Mama had been trying to pack our stuff in a chaotic frenzy. My father -- whose name I never knew -- banged open the front door, yelling, "Where are you, bitch? I'm gonna kill you and your kids!" Panic-stricken, Mama grabbed me, jerked my face up to hers, and shook me, saying, "If anything happens to me, you take care of your sisters." Then she crammed the three of us under the bed one by one -- with me on the outside.
Now I heard my father yelling, "Where are those kids?"
Sweat dripping from her face, my mother ran out of the bedroom. Hearing the bam! bam! bam! of my father's fists against her flesh, I knew what happened when she got to the next room. My sisters and I shook with every blow, as if our mother's cries were our own -- and when her cries stopped, we could still hear the blows. But that wasn't all we heard. Furniture was breaking and glass was flying as the pictures fell down from the walls. My father had slammed into us like a hurricane.
Then, with a kick of his foot, the bedroom door smashed open and the storm stood at our threshold. From under the bed, all I could see was these shoes -- the scariest sight I'd ever seen. I raised my eyes to catch a glimpse of the man who filled the shoes, but his voice interrupted me:
"Where you motherfuckin' kids at? I'm gonna kill you too!"
Three steps in, and his shoes were level with my eyes, barely inches away. All desire to see his face evaporated as I heard the sound of my mother pouncing on his back, flailing and pounding as she screamed, "You ain't gonna kill my kids!"
In this macabre embrace, they twirled out of the bedroom once more. Now I heard the dishes breaking, and then the sinister sound of those horrible shoes kicking my mother, stomping her as she lay on the floor. I heard her yelling, "Help! Please! No!" but there was nothing I could do. As the beating went on and on, my sisters and I simply froze with fear.
Finally the pounding and stomping noises stopped. I heard my father slam out of the house. What was I to do? It was difficult to stay under the bed. I remembered Mama telling me to take care of my sisters if something happened to her. Now something had happened to her, and I wanted to help.
Trying to decide what to do, I fell into an anxious sleep. What woke me up was the sound of something being dragged across the floor. I peeked out from under the bed to see what looked like a monster crawling into the room. It was Mama, her lip swollen and dragging, her eyes hidden by a curtain of blood. She had pulled herself all the way from the next room to just a few feet away from us. I recognized her by her earrings.
She lifted her head off the floor and reached out to us with her hand, but the effort was too much. Her head fell back with a crack as it hit the floor.
Charlene and I scrambled out from our safety. I took Mama's head in my lap and tried to wipe the blood from her face, but it just continued to gush. Even with a wet towel that Charlene brought from the bathroom, we couldn't stop the blood. We looked into one another's eyes and started screaming. At the sound of our panic, Mama opened her eyes a crack. She took my hand and squeezed it really tight, and even managed a smile, as if to say that all was well. And in some way, it was: we were still together.
Hearing our screams, a neighbor came in and called an ambulance for Mama. After that I never asked about my father. But I've always remembered those shoes trying to stomp out the light of my mother, taking me to pain that has lasted forever.