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From the Publisher"Powerful and provocative."
"Miller shows how she's 'got it like that' in the literary world."
— USA Today
"Miller is an excellent storyteller who draws you in from page one."
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"Miller shows how she's 'got it like that' in the literary world."
— USA Today
"Miller is an excellent storyteller who draws you in from page one."
How you doing, Kiddo? Sorry this letter is handwritten, but I couldn't get to the legal library to use the word processor. They've got us on lockdown again because some idiot gangsta wannabe in here shanked some white dude. The fucked up thing is he ain't even know the guy. He just did it to get some respect. Little punk. He's going to get respect all right. Soon as the guards let us all out of our cells he's going to get his ass kicked for getting us all locked up like this over some stupid shit. But don't worry, Kiddo, I'm not even thinking about getting involved in that shit. I'm a two-digit midget. Only thirty-five days and I'm out of this hell hole.
I got your letter, and I miss hearing your voice too, Kiddo. But I'm not going to make any more collect calls to you. It hurt my heart when your telephone got turned off a couple of months ago. A father is supposed to help his kids, not hurt them.
It's funny, but the closer I am to getting out, the more I reflect about what a lousy father I was to you. The feds have kept me away for twenty-five years, but I wasn't really part of your life even before they threw me in here. I didn't understand what it meant to be a father. What a gift from God children are, and how they need love and nurturing to make them whole. I've got a lot of making up to do. To you and to my grandkids. How's Bootsy doing in summer school? Tell him he'd better get his act together, because Granddad is coming home and I'm going to keep my foot on his neck. Only twelve years old and he thinks he's a man. Harlem will do that to a boy, and don't I know it.
I'm going to sign off now because they're getting ready to collect the mail and I want to get this letter out to you today. Give the kids a hug from their old granddad, and tell your crazy ass mother I said hello. And let her know I'm going to kick her ass for letting you have all those kids. (Just kidding!)
I love you, Kiddo, and I look forward to being with you and the kids.
P. S. Write me back real soon!
Brenda stood by the long triple row of steel gray mailboxes in the lobby of the Ida B. Wells-Barnett Tower, reading the letter before carefully refolding it, and replacing it in the envelope. She closed her eyes as she slowly moved her fingers over the return address: Jamison Edwards, U. S. Penitentiary, 1300 Metropolitan, Leavenworth, KS 66048. She sighed, and dismally shook her head. She knew his image from photographs she had seen, but as much as she wanted to, she could not actually remember the father she'd not seen since she was two years old. The man who had started writing her only three years before to say that he wanted to reclaim the daughter he ignored while he was free.
"Ooh, that's good. I'd better write that down," she said out loud as she started shuffling in her pocketbook and pulled out a pen and notepad. "The man who had started writing her only three years before to say that he wanted to reclaim the daughter he ignored while he was free." She looked at the words with a satisfied smile. Oh, yeah. That's really deep.
"Damn, it's not even ten o'clock and it's already hot as hell out there."
Brenda looked up to see a hefty chocolate skinned, middle-aged woman with a slightly skewed honey-blond wig enter the lobby of the Ida B. She was pulling a shopping cart piled high with white plastic bags filled with groceries with one hand, and wiping sweat off her forehead with the palm of the other.
"How are you doing, Miss Jackie?" Brenda asked as she slipped the envelope and notepad into her pocketbook.
"Girl, I ain't doing so good. I think I'm having heart palpitations again. I know I gotta bad heart, even though the doctors say there ain't nothing wrong with it. But what do they know." The woman started patting her heaving, but very deeply sagging, bosom as she leaned heavily against the yellow concrete walls of the building lobby.
"And you know my sugar's been acting up lately. I gotta talk to my doctor today 'cause I think he needs to put me back on insulin. Never should have taken me off, if you ask me. I told my daughter if I die she should sue that Asian bastard. They don't give a shit about black folks, you know. And I was feeling light-headed yesterday, so I think my blood pressure going up again. I'd be lucky if I don't die of a stroke like Mrs. Johnson did last week. I didn't see you at the funeral."
"I wasn't able to go because..." Brenda started.
"Child, I don't blame you. Ain't nobody here in Ida B. liked that mean old woman, anyway. Always calling the police on someone," Miss Jackie cut her off. "I wouldn't go myself if she weren't a member of my church."
"Well, I actually liked her, but — "
"Oh, please, you don't have to pretend for me. You know she tried to get my Ronald locked up, talking about he's the one what started that fire in the second-floor staircase a while back. I know he ain't do it."
Brenda winced at Miss Jackie's use of the word "what" in place of "that." She was a stickler for English herself, but there was no sense in trying to correct the woman.
"I raised my son better than that. She probably did it herself, just to cause some trouble," Miss Jackie started fanning herself with her hand. "I don't want to speak ill of the dead, but ain't no use lying either, if you ask me. But girl, you shoulda went to that funeral and seen the way her grandchildren acted out. I guess you heard about it, huh?"
"Well, no. But — "
"Mmm, mmm, mmm, let me tell you. You know that high-yaller one what moved up to Mount Vernon with that big-time drug dealer? You know, the one what thinks she's so cute. Well, she was up at the funeral wearing a black dress what was so short it was just sinful. Hmmph! Sinful, I say."
"Well, Miss Jackie, I've gotta go, so — "
"And then she had the nerve to be up in that church, crying and carrying on talking about how much she loved her grandmother," Miss Jackie continued, causing Brenda to utter an involuntary, but very audible, sigh which she ignored. "And then she threw herself on the casket and everybody could see her black lace bikini underwear. Oh, child, it was scandalous. If Mrs. Johnson wasn't already dead she would have died of shame. Them grandkids worried that poor woman so much they probably the ones what really killed her. You know that her youngest grandson is locked up for killing somebody up in the Bronx. And they wouldn't even let him come out to go to his own grandmother's funeral. Ain't that something?"
"Miss Jackie — "
"He never was no good, though, if you ask me. And then with that other grandson of hers, Sharif, liking men like that. And you know what the Good Book says about homosexuals..."
"Miss Jackie, I've really got to run," Brenda said with a note of finality.
"Oh, child, you go 'head. Don't let me hold you." Miss Jackie straightened herself up and grabbed the handle of her shopping cart. "I've got to go upstairs and put these groceries away. Where you going anyway, all dressed up wearing that nice suit? Peach really looks nice on you, Brenda. Brings out the highlights in your complexion. Not all girls dark as you got highlights, but you do. I be noticing things like that, you know. And I like them shoes. You looking real spiffy. What, you going out on a job interview or something? But I don't know if you should be wearing your hair like that. What they call it? Twists? Oh, don't get me wrong, I like them all right. They suit you. But, you know, a lot of white folks ain't gonna hire someone what looks like they might be some kind of radical or something."
"Hey, chica! How you doing, Miss Jackie?"
Brenda gave a sigh of relief as a thin but shapely young Puerto Rican woman — wearing blue flip-flops, rhinestone studded jeans, and a red halter top that barely covered her ample breasts — walked up and gave her a gentle shove on the shoulder.
"Girl, Rosa, I'm standing here having heart palpitations — " Miss Jackie started.
"Yeah, Miss Jackie, that's nice." Rosa gave the woman a quick nod, then turned her back on her to address Brenda. "Did the mailman get here yet?"
"Yeah. He's getting here earlier and earlier. I came downstairs at nine-thirty and he'd already been and gone," Brenda said as she gave the younger woman a return shove.
"Uh huh," Miss Jackie nodded. "He sure is been getting here early these days. I think it's 'cause they moved up Ida B. on his route so it's his first stop, and that way when they close the building next year the rest of his route isn't affected too much. Uh huh. That's just what I think. Ain't that something about them closing the Ida B.?"
"Yeah. That's really something, Miss Jackie," Rosa said absentmindedly.
"Those are just rumors about them closing the Ida B., Miss Jackie. Nobody's received any notices yet," Brenda said. "Come on, Rosa. Hurry up and grab your mail so you can walk me to the bus stop."
"You crazy? I ain't going out in that heat," Rosa said as she opened her mailbox and pulled out a bunch of envelopes. "Shit, ain't nothing here but bills."
"I know what you mean, Rosa, not wanting to go out in this heat," Miss Jackie said. "I was just telling Brenda it's so hot out there that — "
"Yeah, Miss Jackie, that's nice." Rosa grabbed Brenda's arm and started pulling her toward the door. "Okay, I'ma walk you, 'cause I got something to tell you anyway. Girl, I got the serious hook-up. One of my cousins started working at The Gap, and you know the gift cards they have now? Well, you give her three hundred dollars and she can hook you up with a seven hundred card. Is that the shit or what?"
"Damn, that'll come in handy for the kids' back-to-school shopping," Brenda nodded.
"I'm telling you, chica. But you can't wait until September and shit. You got to get the card now, because my cousin don't never stay at no job too long. You can use the card later, but I'm telling you, you'd better get that shit now while the getting's good. I'm going to get a card and do some my shopping for Eddie, even though my mother's not bringing him back from Puerto Rico for another two months. But I'm gonna get them one size big in case he does he some growing."
"Yeah, I hear that, girl. Hey, Sharif." Brenda said as a tall muscle-bound man with smooth almond skin and shoulder-length dreadlocks pulled back into a ponytail walked in the door as she and Rosa were heading out.
"Hey, hey," he answered with a broad smile that showed a gleaming set of white teeth any movie star would have died to possess.
"Ooh, give me my sugar." Rosa popped up on her tiptoes, and the man obediently bent down and gave her a quick peck on her lips.
"Uh huh. She's kissing you so you know she wants something, right?" Brenda laughed as Rosa punched her in the arm.
"Where are you two heading?" Sharif asked.
"Aw, man, Sharif, I've got a face-to-face meeting over at the welfare office," Brenda sighed, her shoulders suddenly sagging.
"Hmph. I feel for you," Sharif gave her a reassuring hug.
"I'm just walking her to the bus stop," Rosa said. "You gonna be around later? I gotta talk to you about something."
Sharif grinned. "Yeah, all right, Rosa. But I know you only want some — "
"Oh, Sharif. How you doing, baby?" Miss Jackie called out before he could finish. "Come help me with these groceries."
"No problem, Miss Jackie," Sharif said as he moved toward the woman. "Just knock on my door when you get back," he told Rosa over his shoulder.
"Thank you so much, Sharif baby," Brenda heard Miss Jackie say as she walked out the lobby door. "I'm so sorry about your grandmother. She was the salt of the earth. But God always takes the good first."
"Miss Jackie's such a hypocrite," Brenda said as she and Rosa stepped outside. "I think I'm going to make her a character in my book."
"That book you've been working on for the last ten years and ain't started writing yet," Rosa said as she put her hand above her eyes to block out the sun.
"I think I'm about ready, actually," Brenda said lightly. "I was going over all the notes in my boxes — "
"How many shoe boxes you got filled with notes? Ten?" Rosa interrupted.
"Fourteen. But I think I'm about ready to start writing." Brenda pulled Rosa by the hand and started walking toward the bus stop. "I just need to figure out what the book is about."
Brenda closed the book she'd been reading and looked at her watch. One-thirty. She'd been sitting on the hard plastic dirty orange chair in the welfare office for three hours waiting to speak to her caseworker. She knew her mother was probably having a fit, since she'd promised to pick up the kids before noon. She'd tried three times to call and let her know she was running late, but the line was continually busy. Her mother's call waiting and other optional features had been cut off because she was, once again, late paying the bill. Thank God Mommy finally got registered with the foster care agency so she can start making some money to pay off some bills, Brenda thought. 'Cause the little bit of money she gets from just baby-sitting sure isn't making it.
The waiting room was crowded with other women like her, pissed at having to wait so long, and trying to find some way to pass the time. A woman in the row ahead of her was eating ketchup-soaked french fries, and gossiping on her cell phone about some woman stepping out with some other woman's man, and what the woman was going to do if she found out. The conjectured description wasn't pretty. Another woman, wearing headphones, was bopping her head to a song coming from a blue portable CD player which had transparent tape holding its batteries in place. Little children were running around, innocently playing tag and violently bumping into the chairs, much to Brenda's annoyance. And the woman seated next to her seemed to have drenched herself with Chloe perfume, causing Brenda's head to throb and her nose to run.
She sighed and bowed her head. This wasn't the life she'd expected, waiting for hours in hot, dirty welfare offices, only to be humiliated by smug caseworkers who acted like it was their own money they were giving away. And who looked down on her for having no job and four children, as if that was all she'd ever wanted to be — a welfare mother. They didn't care that she had dreams. She'd been planning on graduating high school with honors, being drafted by all the Ivy League colleges, and going on to become a famous author. But all that changed when she became pregnant at thirteen. The lines of the Langston Hughes poem flew into her mind.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
She raised her head and shook her shoulders, trying to shake off the thought. No, her dreams had to be deferred, but they were going to come to fruition. She was going to make it. And then she would be a benevolent benefactor giving money away to all single moms trying to make something of their lives.
If they don't call me in another fifteen minutes, I'm just going to leave. I don't care if they close my case, Brenda lied to herself.
Brenda looked up at the woman standing in front of her with a bulging file folder in her hand and clipboard tucked under her arm. "Um, yes," Brenda said as she stood up.
"I'm sorry to keep you waiting." The woman tucked the folder under her arm with the clipboard and extended her hand. "I'm Jamilah Cabral, your new caseworker."
"Hi. Nice to meet you," Brenda said as she gave the woman's hand a limp shake while trying to give her a quick, but hopefully unnoticed, look up and down. She looked about forty-five, and had brown locks that hung almost to her backside like thick ropes. Gold-rimmed glasses perched on her lightly freckled nose. A colorful loose-fitting peasant blouse topped a pair of faded black jeans. She looked more like someone Brenda would have expected to see carrying signs and shouting slogans against the war than a welfare worker. But one thing Brenda had learned during her years in the system: looks could be deceiving. No one could be trusted.
She followed her new caseworker to a set of cubicles, ignoring the envious looks of the women still waiting, some of whom were there long before she.
"Do you drink coffee?" Mrs. Cabral asked as Brenda took her seat.
Brenda shook her head, wondering why the woman was being so nice. She'd never before been offered coffee, tea, or water by a caseworker. "What happened to Miss Newcombe?"
"She took family leave because one of her children was diagnosed with leukemia," Mrs. Cabral answered simply, as if it were really okay to divulge information that proved caseworkers were actually human beings. "Her caseload is being divided up, and I pulled your case. It's not permanent, but you'll be working with me for awhile." She opened the bulging file folder. "Now let's see, it says here that you have four children?"
Brenda nodded, her back was straight as she sat on the edge of her seat, steeling herself for the interrogation.
"Are you receiving support from any of their fathers?"
Brenda shook head.
"Are you in touch with any of the fathers?"
Brenda shook her head again.
The caseworker folded her hands on the desk and studied Brenda's face for a few moments, saying nothing. "I like your hairstyle," she said finally.
Brenda self-consciously patted her newly done shoulder length twists. "Um, my girlfriend did it for me. She works in a natural hair salon, so she really knows what she's doing, but she did it at her apartment." She cleared her throat, ashamed of the tremble that was evident in her voice. "For free," she added quickly.
"Uh huh. I see. But I was offering you a compliment, not accusing you of any wrongdoing," Mrs. Cabral said quietly. She stared at Brenda again for a few moments, then suddenly took off her glasses and rubbed the deep indentations they had left on her nose.
"Look, I'm not going to insult you by acting like I'm planning on being your best friend, but I can assure you I'm not here to be an enemy," she said as she put her glasses back on. "I'm not trying to trap you with my questions, I just have to ask because it's required. You know the drill. Every six months you have to come down here and answer the same questions you were asked six months before. It's a drag, but not much more than that. And believe me, I look at my job as an opportunity to help people, not hurt them. So I want you to relax, okay? Are you sure you don't want some coffee?"
Brenda shook her head.
"Would you do me a favor, and try to answer my questions verbally?" Mrs. Cabral smiled. "It's easier for me. And really, try to relax. Please."
Brenda started to nod her head, but caught herself and smiled. "Sure, no problem." Something told her that the woman was genuine. She leaned back in the chair.
"What's that you're reading, anyway?" Mrs. Cabral pointed to the book clutched in Brenda's hand.
"Yo Yo Love," Brenda answered, "by Daaimah Poole. Have you read it?"
"No, I usually read nonfiction these days. But is it good?"
"Oh, yeah," Brenda nodded enthusiastically. "All about a young girl that goes around making bad decisions about men."
"Sounds interesting. I might have to check it out."
"You should. I plan on writing a book myself one day," Brenda added. She pulled out her notebook. "I take this with me wherever I go, and whenever I see something interesting, or an idea or deep thought hits me, I write it down so I can put it in my book. I've been doing it since I was twelve."
"Really. What's your book going to be about?"
"I think about a slave owner who falls in love with a slave. Or maybe about a woman from Harlem becoming the first African-American president," Brenda grinned sheepishly. "I haven't decided yet."
"Well, whatever you decide, I'll be sure to buy the book." Mrs. Cabral smiled and tapped the papers on the desk to straighten them up. "Okay, what say we start from the top? You have four children, is that right?"
"Yes. Bentley's almost thirteen, Shaniqua just turned seven, Yusef is four, and Jumah is getting ready to turn two."
"Good," Mrs. Cabral nodded her head. "Are you receiving support from any of their fathers?
"I wish," Brenda sighed.
"Are you in touch with any of the fathers?"
"No. I haven't seen Bentley's father since he was born. Shaniqua's father's been in prison since she was a couple of months old, and I don't stay in contact with him. Yusef's father disappeared when he found out I was pregnant, and to be truthful, I don't even know his last name, so I sure can't find him. And Jumah's father was killed the same day I was taking Jumah home from the hospital."
"Ooh, that's sad," Mrs. Cabral said quietly.
"About Jumah's father."
Brenda nodded her head. "He and I were planning on getting married. In fact, he wanted to get married a couple of months before Jumah was born, but I wanted a big wedding, and I didn't want to be wearing a fancy wedding dress all pregnant and everything."
"Well, I guess that was one way to look — "
"OH, MY GOD! SHE'S THROWING HER KIDS OUT THE WINDOW! SOMEONE CALL THE POLICE!"
Brenda and Mrs. Cabral both quickly looked up to see people run by the cubicle, heading out to the hallway.
"What the hell is going on?" Mrs. Cabral managed to grab one of her colleagues by the arm.
"I don't know. They said some woman's throwing children out the hallway window," was the breathless answer.
Mrs. Cabral released the woman and ran out to the fourth-floor hallway, pushing through the crowd, with Brenda at her heels.
"Dem tell me come back next week, and dem know goddamn well I'm getting kicked out my apartment today. Dem know I got no damn money to feed me damn kids," a wide-eyed woman standing by the hallway window screamed. Tears were streaming down her face, and dribble spilled from her twisted lips. Her face was so distorted it took Brenda a moment to recognize that it was Diana, who lived on the eleventh floor of Ida B. — one of the women for whom her mother baby-sat.
"My kids tell me dem hungry. I can't even buy dey no hotdogs. What I gonna do? I can't take dey begging me for food I can't give. I can't take it." Before anyone could stop her, the woman jumped out the window head first, her piercing scream ending with a sickening thud as she landed on the bodies of her two children.
Copyright © 2004 by Karen E. Quinones Miller