ou stood in a West Jackson classroom teaching black children how correct usage of the word “be” could save them from white folk while I knelt in North Jackson, preparing to steal the ID card of a fifteen-year-old black girl named Layla Weathersby. I was twelve years old, three years younger than Layla, who had the shiniest elbows, wettest eyes, and whitest Filas of any of us at Beulah Beauford’s house. Just like the big boys, Dougie and me, all Layla ever wanted to do was float in the deep end.
Beulah Beauford’s house, which sat deep in a North Jackson neighborhood next to ours, was only the second house I’d been in with new encyclopedias, two pantries filled with name-brand strawberry Pop-Tarts, and an in-ground pool. Unlike us in our rented house, which we shared with thousands of books and two families of rats, Beulah Beauford and her husband owned her house. When we moved from apartments in West Jackson to our little house in the Queens, and eventually to North Jackson, I wanted people who dropped me off to think Beulah Beauford’s house belonged to us. Our house had more books than any other house I’d ever been in, way more books than Beulah Beauford’s house, but no one I knew, other than you, wanted to swim in, or eat, books.
Before dropping me off, you told me I was supposed to use Beulah Beauford’s encyclopedias to write a report about these two politicians named Benjamin Franklin Wade and Thaddeus Stevens. You told me to compare their ideas of citizenship to President Ronald Reagan’s claim: “We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.”
Then I was also supposed to read the first chapter of William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and imitate Faulkner’s style when writing a short story placed in Jackson. The first sentence in the book was a million words long, which was cool, and it used strange words like “wisteria” and “lattices,” but I didn’t know how to write like Faulkner and say anything honest about us. Ronald Reagan gave me the bubble-guts and William Faulkner made me feel drunker than a white man, so I decided I’d take the whupping from you or write lines when I got home.
Besides Layla, and Beulah Beauford’s son, Dougie, usually there were at least two other seventeen-year-old big boys in the house who were the friends of Dougie’s older cousin, Daryl. Daryl moved into Beulah Beauford’s house a year earlier from Minnesota and his room was a straight-up shrine to Vanity, Apollonia, and Prince Rogers Nelson. Daryl and his boys went from rolling their own cigarettes, to smoking weed, to selling tiny things that made people in North Jackson feel better about being alive. In between doing all that smoking and selling, they swam, watched porn, drank Nehis, boiled Red Hots, ate spinach, got drunk, got high, imitated Mike Tyson’s voice, talked about running trains, and changed the rules to swim at Beulah Beauford’s house every other week that summer of 1987.
One week, the rule was Dougie, Layla, and I had to make the older boys all the supersweet Kool-Aid they could drink with perfectly chipped ice if we wanted to swim. Two weeks later, the rule was Dougie and I had to place five socks around our fists and box each other until one of our noses bled. The next-to-last day I spent at Beulah Beauford’s house, the rule was simple: Layla had to go in Daryl’s room with all the big boys for fifteen minutes if she wanted to float in the deep end, and Dougie and I had to steal all the money out of her purse and give it to the big boys when they got out.
Layla, who smelled like apple Now and Laters, shea butter, and bleach, always wore a wrinkled sky-blue swimsuit underneath her acid-washed Guess overalls. I watched her walk down the hall behind Darryl, Wedge, and this dude named Delaney with the biggest calves in the neighborhood. Delaney claimed he’d been initiated into the Vice Lords one weekend earlier.
We all believed him.
When the door to Darryl’s bedroom closed, Dougie and I started rummaging through Layla’s purse. Stealing stuff, getting to the last level in Donkey Kong, barely losing fights, and saying “on hard,” “on punishment,” and “on swole” were Dougie’s superpowers. He wasn’t all-world at any of them, but he did all four ten times more than anyone I’d ever known in Jackson.
Since Layla didn’t have any money to steal, Dougie stole Layla’s compact that day. He claimed he was going to fill it with these weak joints Daryl showed him how to roll. I saw and stole a crumpled minipack of apple Now and Laters right next to this unopened bottle of white shoe polish.
Inside the smallest pocket of the purse, wrapped around some yellow legal pad paper, was this homemade ID. None of the edges were smooth and Layla had on a red Panama Jack shirt and braces on her bottom teeth in the picture. The ID had Layla’s birth date, school name, weight, height, and a church picture of her and her family standing in front of Mt. Calvary, but it didn’t have her name on it. I remember Layla was at least six inches shorter and fifty pounds lighter than me. On the other side of the ID, blazing across the middle in huge bleeding black marker, were the words USE THIS IN CASE OF EMERGENCIES.
Up until that point, I’d never really imagined Layla being in one emergency, much less emergencies. Part of it was Layla was a black girl and I was taught by big boys who were taught by big boys who were taught by big boys that black girls would be okay no matter what we did to them. Part of it was Layla was three whole years older than me and I never really had a conversation with her for more than eight seconds. Layla wasn’t the most stylish girl in North Jackson, but she was definitely the funniest person in Beulah Beauford’s house, and she was all-world at more things than all of us combined. She was all-world at dissing Daryl for having feet that stank through his bootleg Jordans, all-world at reminding Delaney his breaststroke was forever a “drownstroke,” and all-world at never really laughing at anyone else’s sentences until she was good and ready. I wasn’t the type of fat black boy to ever talk to fine black girls first, and Layla wasn’t the type of fine black girl to ever really talk to fat black boys like me unless she was asking me to get out of her way, walk faster, or get her some Kool-Aid.
I didn’t have an ID of my own, but I did have this blue velcro Jackson State University wallet with the faded tiger on the front. You gave it to me for Christmas. I kept the two-dollar bill Grandmama gave me for my birthday in it. Behind a black-and-white picture of Grandmama, in one of the folds, was one of your old licenses. You said I couldn’t leave the house without it until I got my own license. A real license, you told me way more than once, didn’t mean I was grown. It just meant I was technically protected from the Vice Lords, the Folks, and the Jackson police, who you claimed worked for Ronald Reagan and the devil.