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White Lines 1
By Tracy Brown
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2007 Tracy Brown
All rights reserved.
A HOUSE OF CARDS
"You don't fuckin' listen! I told you to come out of that room, Ava. I was knocking on the door, and all I heard was your nasty ass moaning."
"Whatever, Jada!" Ava smoothed her hair out of her face, and popped her gum.
Jada and Ava knew they were in trouble. They were supposed to be home by the time the streetlights came on. But it had been dark for a while now, and they knew they were in for it. At sixteen and fourteen years old, respectively, boys were their favorite pastime, and they had snuck off to meet a couple of them.
"Whatever my ass. I told you to stop letting these li'l niggas touch on you and hump you and shit." Jada looked at her sister with disapproval all over her face.
"Jada, stop fuckin' preaching all the time. I only let Derek do all that. And you ain't no saint. Don't sit there and act like you wasn't in the living room with Marlon being just as nasty. So —"
"So, nothing! I knew when it was time to go home, though. We should have been home a long time ago, but your nasty ass didn't want to leave. And you never listen to me when I tell you that we gotta go. Whenever we go somewhere together, and you don't want to leave, I can't leave you behind. You're my sister. Anything can happen out here. And now 'cause of you, we're late. You know this muthafucka J.D.'s gonna be beefing all night now."
They walked through the streets of Brooklyn, silenced by worry. Neither of them wanted to face the fury that awaited them at home. They were pretty little ghetto superstars, mulatto girls with glowing complexions and encompassing eyes. Their mother was a blend of French and black, and their father was of Jamaican descent. They had a look that made them stand out from the rest, yet they still had a grit about them that was undeniably hood. The sisters were quite different in personality. Jada was bold, almost wild and adventurous. Everybody in the neighborhood — even the grown folks — knew Jada by name. She was always on the scene. Always with the latest slang and the loudest mouth. Jada's soft brown complexion, shoulder-length dark hair, and striking bone structure made her quite stunning.
Ava, on the other hand, was beautiful, but she was timid and delicate and tended to blend into a crowd. Not that she was innocent. Ava was quieter than Jada, but she was just as much a Brooklyn girl as her sister. Ava was boy crazy, and would often intrigue Jada with her stories of passionate make-out sessions with guys. Ava hid this side of her well. So while Jada was usually in the center of the crowd, with everyone hanging on her every word, Ava would be sitting on the sidelines — with some boy usually whispering in her pretty brown ears. Ava was a little shorter than her sister, but had a lighter skin tone, longer hair, and the prettiest pink lips anyone had ever seen. She was lovely, and her body was shapelier than average at her age.
Realizing that her sister was right, Ava cleared her throat. "I'm sorry," she said, avoiding her sister's gaze. "I should have listened to you, Jada. But Derek is so cute."
Jada grinned at Ava and shook her head. "He is cute. But, not as cute as Marlon."
"Whatever!" Ava laughed, and shoved her sister playfully. They walked the rest of the way home giggling about how they'd spent their afternoon. Derek and Marlon were the cutest boys in school, and they just happened to be cousins. Both of them hustled, despite their young ages, and they were well-known around the way. Jada and Ava had spent many a giggle-filled night talking about how two boys that fine had to fall from the same family tree. All the girls in school wanted Derek and Marlon. They were always fly, always had dough. But despite all the girls who wanted them, they wanted Jada and Ava. So when the opportunity arose for the four of them to be alone, the girls had jumped at the chance. They'd met at Marlon's house and proceeded to spend several unsupervised hours with the boys of their dreams. For the next few hours, both girls were on cloud nine, as they French-kissed and were caressed by the two cutest boys in school. Now it was almost 8:30, and they had a lot of explaining to do. Their time with Derek and Marlon had been a welcome distraction from the ugliness they experienced both at home and in their neighborhood.
The crack epidemic had taken over ghettos across the country, and Brooklyn was the worst. Bodies showed up every night up and down Flatbush Avenue, and throughout the borough of Brooklyn. Gunshots rang out, and everybody knew the drill. They'd hit the deck and wait till it ceased, wondering if this time the victim was someone they knew. Crack vials littered the sidewalks, the stairwells, and even the schoolyards. Drug dealers fought over corners, and over customers. Car radios blared rap music at all hours of the day and night. This became the canvas of the girls' young lives as they journeyed toward adulthood.
They arrived at their building, and entered the littered lobby. They rode up on the urine-scented elevator, the walls lined with tracks from spit. Garbage littered the elevator floor, and for the millionth time both girls wished they lived anywhere except the projects. As soon as Jada turned the key in their apartment door, she could hear the yelling coming from the kitchen. It was going to be a long night. J.D. was in the middle of one of his tirades. Both sisters knew that the night would end in the usual manner — with their mother balled up on the floor, crying as she tried to block her man's kicks and punches.
Life hadn't always been so hopeless for the girls. Edna Ford had gotten married and given birth to Jada and Ava when she was fresh out of high school. Their father, Sheldon Ford, a man five years older than Edna, married her when she was very young and easily manipulated. Sheldon had been the hardworking, financially stable father and husband that every woman dreams of. Edna had stayed home and cooked and cleaned, while Sheldon went out every day and worked as a truck driver, in and out of state. Jada grew up adoring her father. It was easy to do, since Sheldon had been such a handsome, strong, and charismatic man. Whenever Sheldon was away — often for days at a time driving his truck — Edna seemed eager, almost anxious for his return. She had a hard time making decisions on her own, or thinking for herself. And Jada sensed this early on. She could tell that her mother was not comfortable in a position of authority, that Edna needed Sheldon's input and his direction. This was evident in everything, from selecting new furniture for the house to which dress she should wear when they went out. Edna always sought Sheldon's approval. So whenever he returned it was a relief for both Edna and her daughters, all of them thirsting for the comfort they found in Daddy's presence. Edna loved and doted on her husband. She knew that she was lucky to have a man like Sheldon. Someone who wasn't in and out of jail, a man who worked hard and looked good doing it. What Edna didn't know was that Sheldon was living a double life, and was secretly seeing other women.
He left exactly four years after Ava was born. It was her birthday, and they were having guests to celebrate their baby girl's special day. Jada and Ava had been decked out in their best dresses, and all the mothers from the neighborhood had brought their children to the party. Edna had been so busy flaunting her well-furnished home and her beautiful daughters in front of the jealous women from the block that she never realized so many of them had already slept with her husband.
Ava was sitting shyly in the corner at her own birthday party while Jada was center stage, dancing her heart out with all the other kids. Edna was so distracted, as she soothingly encouraged Ava to join in the fun, that she only half acknowledged Sheldon when he told her that he was going to the store to get some more soda. Edna had waved him off and mumbled something about them needing napkins too. But Sheldon never returned. And Jada had watched her mother make feeble excuses for the rest of the night about where her man was. She entertained their guests while discreetly wringing her hands, eager for his return. But Sheldon never came back. Long after the guests were gone and the house was clean, he was nowhere to be found. When he finally had the decency to call his wife, he told her that he'd found somebody else with whom the grass seemed greener. And he never looked back. Edna had been heartbroken. She had stayed in her room and lain in her bed, crying for days at a time. Jada had been the one to put on a brave face and shield her younger sister from her mother's sobs, by keeping Edna's bedroom door closed and turning on the living room stereo in order to drown out their mother's crying. While Ava asked where their daddy had gone, and why Mommy wouldn't come out of her room, Jada changed the subject and made sandwiches for her sister. Despite being a mere six years old, Jada knew in her heart that their daddy wasn't coming back. She knew that Sheldon had walked away, never to return. And she thought she must have been the most heartbroken of all. Yet she kept her game face on and played the role of the rock for both her sister and her own mother. Jada did a lot of growing up, and would later wonder who had been the parent and who had been the child.
Sheldon had met lots of women in the course of driving in and out of state. But he fell in love with a woman who didn't want or have the patience for kids. Despite the voice in his head telling him that he was wrong, he abandoned his own daughters and began a life with the woman he couldn't live without. But it turned out that the woman wasn't quite divorced, and in an unexpected altercation, he was killed by her jealous husband with a gunshot to the heart. After being contacted as next of kin, Edna and the girls had buried Sheldon in what was the saddest of funerals. As his wife, she had inherited all of his benefits. But Edna was overcome with grief and disappointment. She felt that she had failed as a wife. She wondered what she had done wrong to cause him to love someone else. Was she not pretty enough? Was her cooking not up to par? Had she asked for too many frivolous things? Was she too talkative? Too conservative? She was full of questions and no answers were forthcoming from the dead man she had loved so much, who was stretched out in a casket at Roosevelt Funeral Home.
Edna seemed not to notice her daughters' pain. But Jada and Ava both felt a huge void. After Sheldon died, Edna had sold and given away most of his belongings in order to rid herself of all the pain she seemed to grow more consumed by day after day. All the girls had to remember their father by was a five-by-seven-inch picture that he had taken before he had broken out. Jada would always remember staring at that picture night after night, wishing he would come back. Ava mourned her father's loss in silence, internalizing her pain. And Edna seemed to miss him, too. She was visibly sad and seemed lonely without him. She no longer entertained company, because now that Sheldon was gone she began hearing all the stories about what a ladies' man he had been. Edna was embarrassed, and felt like a fool. She imagined that everyone was laughing at her behind her back. She hung her head in shame, and withdrew from almost everybody. Her daughters were the only ones with whom she shared an occasional smile.
Those were the times in her childhood Jada would always reflect happily on. Edna spent time teaching them to play cards. They played Bingo for loose change and baked cakes together. The girls would help her cook, and Edna would let them brush her long hair. It was a time of contentment for the girls. And yet for Edna, those years were so lonely. She felt incomplete without a man to share her life. This wasn't how she'd pictured life as a mother. Where was the man in her life? What had happened to happily ever after? Edna longed for the comfort of a man — the comfort of not having to work and make decisions. She longed to relinquish her control. Somehow her daughters sensed their mother's loneliness. So when she met J.D., the girls thought she had found happiness at last. They thought she would have somebody to help her smile more, and they were excited for her.
Soon Edna seemed like a whole different woman. She started going to get her hair pressed, and started dressing better and putting on makeup and perfume. Every Saturday she played Betty Wright records. Candy Statton and Evelyn Champagne King. She was happier then. She smiled more, and the house was filled with music instead of so much silence and structure.
Edna and J.D. had met at her job. She had been working several odd jobs to make ends meet, but she met him when she was working as a waitress at a diner in downtown Brooklyn. He flirted with her until he broke down her wall, and then he wined and dined her. She was so shy and so quiet. But he made her smile. He made her laugh.
J.D. made Edna feel good. And he was good to her daughters, bringing them candy, and talking with them about whatever was on TV. Everything was fine and dandy, until he moved in. Edna let J.D. move into her two-bedroom apartment on Parkside after they had been together for about eight or nine months. And that's when the truth came out. He started hitting her about a month or two after he got there.
The first time J.D. put his hands on Edna, the girls heard their mother fighting with him and they ran in to help her. J.D. was instantly remorseful, and he started apologizing to all of them. He was so sorry, so very sorry. But after that time, he was never sorry. He would get drunk, beat her ass, and then if they were lucky, he would go out for a few hours.
The girls were little then. Jada was ten, and Ava was eight when he moved in. Edna did what she could to explain what he was doing. She always had an excuse, some lame explanation for his unprovoked rage. When he was in bed sobering up the next day, dead asleep and snoring like a fucking madman, she would attempt to explain his behavior. She told them that he was an alcoholic, that he had a sickness, and you don't leave people just because they're sick. She said that he had had a hard life, and he was frustrated sometimes. She would tell them that she provoked him. It was her fault that he hit her. She found some way to justify it, found a way to make it her fault. Either it was because she had decided to get her hair done that day, when the money she spent on her hair could have been J.D.'s carfare to go and look for a job, or it was the pressure of being a black man in America, and never being good enough. Or it was his frustration over never having children of his own. Or maybe it was because he didn't know how to express his anger any other way. Edna had a million excuses for J.D.'s behavior. But excuses are never good reasons, and being a very mature ten-year-old, Jada could tell that her mother was feeding them bullshit. As they grew older, J.D. turned his fury on them. This was the environment in which the girls became young ladies, trying to sidestep a madman living under their own roof.
Jada proceeded inside the apartment with Ava right behind her. But when they shut the door and locked it, J.D., visibly drunk, and their mother were standing with their arms folded, looking at the two of them.
"Where the hell were you two?" J.D. demanded. Jada looked at her mother, hoping she would intervene. But Edna stood there humbly, behind her man as he took charge of the situation.
Jada spoke up. "We were at the park."
"What time did your mother tell you to be in this house?" J.D.'s voice was loud, and Ava moved closer to her older sister.
Jada fought the urge to tell him that it was none of his muthafuckin' business where they'd been, and that he wasn't their father and he had no right to question them. Looking at her mother cowering behind J.D., Jada knew that she wouldn't be able to hold her tongue much longer. She was tired of living in fear of this son of a bitch. She spoke calmly once more. "We always come home when the streetlights come on. But today —"
"But shit! You two think your little asses is grown. That's the fuckin' problem!" J.D. got in Jada's face, scowling. "Your mother told you to be in this house before it got dark. And here it is damn near nine o'clock, and you two hos come strolling up in here —"
"I ain't no ho!" Jada yelled defiantly, in his face, and not backing down.
J.D. slapped Jada hard in her face. Edna recoiled, as if she herself had been hit, but said nothing in her daughter's defense.
"Don't hit my sister!" Ava yelled, and stepped between her sister and J.D. J.D. felt that Ava was challenging his authority by stepping in front of him like that, and he whaled on Ava.
"Oh, you wanna challenge me? Bitch!" J.D. shouted, and he slapped Ava so hard that she staggered back.
Excerpted from White Lines 1 by Tracy Brown. Copyright © 2007 Tracy Brown. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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