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White Lines 3
By Tracy Brown
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2007 Tracy Brown
All rights reserved.
Born went to his mother's house after finding Jada high. That was his home away from home, and the one place where he knew he could be himself completely. He felt so many emotions at once, and at the forefront of all of those was rage. He was so angry that he walked right past his mother, as she stood washing dishes in the kitchen, and into his old bedroom, where he locked the door and turned his radio up.
The room still looked the same as when he'd been a young man living in his mother's house. There was always one guest or another — cousins, uncles, and sometimes Born's own friends — who found it necessary to stay at his mother's house from time to time. She was always willing to help out a friend in need, and this was one of the many reasons people loved Ingrid Graham. She knocked on his bedroom door twice, and called Marquis by name. But when he ignored her, she walked back into the kitchen and allowed him to have time to himself. She knew her son. She didn't have to see his face to tell that something was wrong. Marquis would never walk into his mother's house without giving her a hug or a kiss or saying something slick. Ingrid resumed washing the dishes, and sang along to the Al Green song playing from her portable radio on the counter. She knew that when he calmed down enough to talk, he would come to her.
Born paced his room angrily. He was sick to his stomach, and felt like he might actually throw up. Jada was smoking again. He laughed at himself. How stupid and how blind he must have been not to notice! She was stealing from him. Born shook his head in amazement. He shook his head, because he had known all along. And that realization is what enraged him. Born punched the closet door in frustration, and didn't give any attention to his throbbing knuckles afterward. A large hole remained in the spot he had punched, and Born covered his face with his hands in exasperation. He was devastated.
Jada, his sweet baby girl. How could she do it? How long had she been doing it? Why did she do it? Why didn't he confront her sooner? The truth was, Born had noticed a change in Jada's behavior long ago. He had seen her moods change quickly. She would be sweet and sultry one moment, and then sad and withdrawn the next. In his head, he had wondered all along if she had gone back to cocaine. But his heart wouldn't let him believe she would hurt him like that, that she would throw away all that they had just so that she could suck on a glass dick. He couldn't believe that he had played the fool.
And Jamari knew. That meant that Wizz knew, too. In addition to all the emotions he was feeling, he was also terribly embarrassed. He wondered if everybody knew but him. He felt so stupid. They were probably laughing at what a fool he was, Born thought. He wiped the sweat from his forehead as he stood there, still wearing his jacket, and fuming. He just wanted the earth to swallow him up. He reached into his pocket, and pulled out a ten-dollar crack rock. He looked at it in the light of his familiar bedroom. Countless times he had bagged this shit up, sold it, gone out of town to move it, gone uptown to get it, and made a living in the trade of it. He thought about his father, then about Jada. This rock, this little pebble-sized piece of cocaine, had ruined the relationship he had with two people he had truly loved. It had taken his father's life, directly or indirectly. And now, Jada was in its crossfire. He felt a tear fall, and quickly wiped it away. He had to man up, now. It wasn't time for him to crumble. Born felt in his heart like the game was trying to beat him.
He had always felt as though his father had had the game half right. He could have been a big deal, his pops. Leo Graham was the man, and everybody either feared him or loved him. He wasn't what one would call a likable guy. He was a menace. But those he loved he took care of, and he had the game almost figured out. He thought he could beat it, thought he could conquer the golden rule of Hustling 101: You can't get high on the shit you're pushing. Leo thought he could handle it, and he was dead wrong. This rock Born held in his hand had beaten his father. Jada had thought she could play with fire without getting burned as well. She was stupid and weak, in Born's eyes at that moment. And to add insult to injury, she had stolen from him. He had given her an all-access pass to his life, his home, and his heart. He had allowed himself to trust her, and to believe in her. And she had repaid him by getting high and stealing from the one person who had ever loved her without boundaries. He still loved her, but he couldn't get past this, so it was time to let her go.
Born opened the door, and walked into the kitchen, looking for his mother. She wasn't there. He found her in the living room with her feet up, still listening to Al Green. She was reading a copy of Essence magazine while "I'm Still in Love with You" drifted from the radio's speakers. He loved coming home to the place where he'd spent his childhood. Ingrid still lived in the same apartment that she'd moved into when she came to New York from Georgia in the sixties. When she'd moved into Arlington Terrace, it was a high-rise development, where only the successful middle-class lived. It was a privilege to live there then. But as time went by and hardworking tenants had moved out, crime became commonplace. The exclusivity the development once boasted of was gone. And Arlington became as hood as any given project in Staten Island. But Ingrid had stayed through it all. She'd watched the neighborhood go from good to bad, and then from bad to worse. But she wasn't going anywhere.
His mother's presence gave him a comfort he couldn't explain. Few people in her apartment complex knew that his mother — one of the community's elders — was as well versed in the streets as she was. None of them knew that Ingrid had more money hidden in her humble apartment than some folks had in their life savings. Ingrid had money tucked in her kitchen, in her mattress, in a strongbox in her closet, and in a bevy of other places. But she also had money in the bank, a retirement plan, and insurance. She was a hustler, his moms, a smart woman who had watched and learned a lot over the years. And she was down for her son no matter what.
Born sat down in the chair that his father used to love. It was a black recliner that no one really sat in because it was old and worn. But Born sat there every time he came by. It had been his father's chair. The king's throne. He sat there now, with the crack vial in his hand, and looked at his mother. He laid it in the center of the coffee table, and Ingrid looked at her son as if he had lost his mind.
"What the hell is wrong with you, Marquis?" She looked over the rim of her glasses at him, like a schoolteacher would. "Why'd you bring that shit in my house?"
He looked at his mother, feeling completely hopeless. He wanted her to explain this shit to him. He needed her to tell him why this was happening to him. Why him? His voice cracked as he spoke. "What is it about that," he nodded toward the crack on the table, "that makes people hurt the ones they love?" His eyes were really searching hers for the answer.
Ingrid looked at her son, knowing that something serious had happened. She had heard his fist knock a hole in the closet, and she wondered what would prompt him to come into her house this enraged. And what was all this talk about crack?
Ingrid put her magazine down, and kept looking over the rim of her glasses at her son, her arms folded across her buxom chest. "What's on your mind, Marquis? What's the matter with you tonight?" She looked at his helpless expression, and was sincerely worried. Her son was a warrior. Never had she seen Marquis look this sick about a situation, not even at his own father's funeral. "Is this about Leo?"
Born shrugged his shoulders. "Is it? I don't know. It might be. It might be all about him in some strange way. It's like he's here all over again, and I feel let down all over again."
His mother looked confused. "What are you talking about, boy?"
"Ma!" Born didn't know why he was yelling at his mother. He checked himself, and lowered his voice. "I gotta understand why this shit keeps fuckin' up my life."
His mother nodded, trying to help him out. "Well, first of all, stop cursing so much in here." She lit up a cigarette, and blew the smoke out. "Now start at the beginning. What happened tonight?"
Born looked at his mother, and she smiled softly, encouraging him to tell the story. This wasn't easy for him. Ingrid had only met Jada once, and she had seen the love in her son's eyes instantly. She could tell by the way he looked at Jada, and by how playful he was with her, that he was smitten. As long as Jada was OK with Marquis, she was okay with Ingrid. But now he had no idea how his mother would react to this news. "Jada's smoking that." He motioned toward the coffee table.
Ingrid looked at the crack on the table, and then she looked at her son. She shook her head, as if that would make what he'd just said untrue. No. This couldn't be happening, she prayed. Now she understood his anguish. First his father, and now his girlfriend. She shook her head in pity. Shock registered on her face. "Oh, my God, Marquis."
Born was so upset. "I found out tonight, but I think I kinda knew all along. I didn't want to believe it. But tonight I set a trap, and she walked right into it. She was stealing from me, and getting high behind my back. I can't believe it. But then, at the same time, I wonder how I didn't see it all along. I can't be with her no more, Ma. But my heart is broke, and I wanna just ... hurt somebody. Word! I don't know what I'm supposed to do now. But I can't imagine me being with her another second. She's weak, and she's useless ..."
"Now, wait a minute, Marquis," Ingrid scolded. "You can't be so quick to say who's weak and who's useless. You have to look at it both ways. If you think a crackhead is weak or useless, then you're saying that your father was weak and useless, and I'm not gonna let you sit in here and talk bad about your father."
Born let her have her say, because he hadn't meant to upset her. He didn't want to argue about what Leo was or wasn't. He wasn't there for that. He was there because he needed help with his shattered heart, which he held in fragments in his hands.
Ingrid continued. "You gotta get the cold out your own eye, before you go and tell somebody else they got some shit in theirs." Born started to protest her using the four-letter word, when she had just told him to stop cursing. But Ingrid cut him off. "I'm grown! I can curse as much as I want."
Born wanted to remind her that he was grown too, but he held his tongue. He shook his head in frustration, and let her have her say.
Ingrid continued. "Anyway, you're out here selling that mess, Marquis. You can't judge people for being weak and useless if you make your living off of those same people. That makes you a hypocrite. It makes you guilty of taking advantage of people who are weak and useless for your own personal gain. Think about it, Marquis. You felt so sad when your father died. You feel sad right now, knowing that Jada is using the same poison. But you're out there selling that poison to folks night and day. You're making sure somebody else's child, somebody else's husband, somebody else's friend remains weak and useless."
Born couldn't take it anymore. "You never complained before, Ma!" He was trying to be as delicate as possible. But it was getting hard to hear this lecture from the very person who had helped him spend so much of his drug money. "I know what you're saying is true, but —"
"I'm not sitting here and saying that I'm not guilty of my own sins. I know I didn't exactly demand that you stop doing what you were doing. That's something I regret to this day. But that's my point. All of us have sins. We all have our weaknesses. Don't judge people so harshly for theirs, because you'll be judged just as harshly for your own."
He nodded his head. He knew she was right. He had always seen his own ability to play the game as proof that he had it all figured out. He wasn't strung out on anything. In fact, Born had never used any drugs other than a little weed every now and then, a drink or two on occasion. He was on the right side of the game, as far as he was concerned. He was getting money, making moves. And he didn't look at it like he was preying on anybody's weakness. The money was out there. If he didn't go out and get it, someone else would. He saw no reason to feel guilty, when the crackheads made a choice to get high. That was his problem with Jada, with his father. They had both made a decision to get high, and they couldn't find the strength to stop getting high. Not even for his sake. Not even for the love he felt toward them.
"How long has she been using?" Ingrid asked. Born described Jada's history with drug abuse briefly to his mother, sparing her the grittiest details, about her selling her body. Ingrid sat back when he was done, and stared at him. Born wondered if his mother thought he was a fool. He guessed that Ingrid thought he had been dumb to get involved with a former addict in the first place. But she didn't think that at all. Ingrid was thinking about how she had also ignored the signs of Leo's drug use, how she had tried to block it out. She listened to Born tell her how he had thought Jada was really through with drugs when he met her. Ingrid remembered feeling that Leo could also be strong enough to let go, only to be let down again and again when he went right back to crack.
She thought back to when she had first realized that Leo was smoking. Finally, after several minutes of silence, she spoke. "Your father started using cocaine when you were little," she said. "Maybe eight or nine years old. I heard the rumors, saw the signs and all that shit. But I didn't want to know." Ingrid paused. "I knew that Leo was gettin' high. Him and his crew would come in here and get higher than the sky just about every night. I knew about that. I didn't fuss about it, because I knew that was part of Leo's package. He was maintaining. He had it under control. Leo was who he was, either love him or leave him. And I loved him." She sighed, and looked at her son, who was sitting and soaking up her every word, her body language, and all. Listening to her, he wondered how she had been able to love her husband despite his addiction. He knew he wouldn't be able to love Jada despite hers.
She looked at him. "Leo was a good man. He had good intentions. He loved you, Marquis. He really did. When he was doing good, we had the best of everything. His habit was something he seemed to have control of in the beginning. But when he started struggling, I could feel it. I felt like he wasn't telling me something. Something changed between us. Then the money started slowing up." Ingrid puffed her cigarette. "I always worked. Leo was into so many different hustles that we had to account for some legitimate money — some legal sources of income. So I always had a job. Plus, I always knew it was important to have my own. Even Leo stressed that to me. He always encouraged me to work, to have my rainy day money ready. And I listened. I kept me a job." Ingrid grinned, slightly. "I had to start hiding money, so that Leo wouldn't know what I had. He didn't steal from me. But if he knew there was money laying around, he would definitely want to smoke it up. And if I refused to give him the money, we would fight all night. So I hid it. I kept my own stash that he knew nothing about. Nobody knew about it. It wasn't much — just a couple of hundred dollars. But it was something for a rainy day that he didn't know about. That was always something I maintained." Ingrid thought to herself that this was yet another lesson that Leo had taught her. Life with Leo was one big lesson; he taught her how to drive, how to navigate the hood, and how to be his better half. He had also, unknowingly, taught her how to hide assets, and how to conceal money. He had been quite a teacher.
Excerpted from White Lines 3 by Tracy Brown. Copyright © 2007 Tracy Brown. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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