Soon to be a feature film starring Idris Elba
“Original in theme and inspirational in tone and content.” — Booklist
From a Coretta Scott King Author Award Honor winner comes a street- smart tale about a displaced teen who learns to defend what’s right — the Cowboy Way. Inspired by the little- known urban riders of Philly and Brooklyn, this compelling tale of latter- day cowboy justice champions a world where your friends always have your back, especially when the chips are down.
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We drivin’ into the sunset, the car burning up from the heat. I don’t know if it’s comin’ from outside or from Mama, who’s burning up angry at me. She ain’t said nothin’ to me since we left the principal’s office ’bout a hour ago. But she got her foot pressed on the gas like we in a race, zoomin’ past everyone on the expressway.
“I can’t do this no more, Cole.”
“Do what?” I say.
But I know. I only seen her this angry once before, and this is worse.
“Where we going?” I ask.
She don’t answer. By the time we hit the interstate outta Detroit, I can see she crying. I hate when she do that. It makes me feel bad inside, ’cause I’m always the one who makes her feel that way.
“I’m sorry, Mama.”
She wipes her eyes on her sleeve.
“Me too, baby. Me too,” she says, all sad.
I see the city slowly disappearing, turning into suburbs. I know she gotta work early in the morning, so we can’t be driving that far. I ask her again.
“Where we going?”
Cars is falling behind us ’cause she speedin’ up.
She chokes it out: “Philadelphia.”
I laugh, then see she ain’t joking.
“What?!” I stare at her hard.
Her hands is shaking, so she grab the steering wheel tighter.
“Philly?” I say, my head spinning. “What for?”
She pulls on her hair and grunts. “I can’t be your mama right now. You need a man in your life.”
I try to let that sink in, but my ears is on fire. “What you talking about? Who’s in Philly?”
Who I never met.
Who Mama never talks about.
Once I asked if she had a picture of him, and she said she burned ’em all. When I kept on her, all she said was he didn’t care about us and now he gone and good riddance.
She never said nothing more.
Now I find out we gonna go see him?
She just holds up her hand like she can’t even go there, like the idea that she gonna take me to him is the last thing she’d ever do.
But she doing it. And then it hits me: “You wanna get rid of me.”
That gets her. I can see her holding that steering wheel so tight her knuckles is turning white. “I can’t do this no more,” she says to no one. “After twelve years, I got nothing left.”
That’s crazy talk. She can’t leave me. “But you my mama! You supposed to watch out for me!”
She bites her lip, her eyes locked on some faraway place. “I used to think your daddy was a bad father . . . that he didn’t know how to take care of us. But now I’m thinking there’s something wrong with me ’cause I don’t know why you are the way you are,” 4 she say. “Maybe he’s the only one left who can turn you around.”
She startin’ to scare me now, talkin’ like that. “I ain’t so bad, Mama. I can do better.”
She nod, fightin’ for words. “I know you can, baby. You just need someone that can show you the way. But that ain’t me no more, Cole.”
I can’t believe what I’m hearin’. “So you gonna leave me with some dude who never cared about us? Some guy who treated you so bad, you never talk about him?”
She stares ahead, her eyes wet. She ain’t disagreeing. “He’s different is all. But maybe different is what you need.”
And with that, she just shuts down.
I seen that look before. It means she made up her mind. I think about grabbing that steering wheel and turning the car around, but she like a rock and, deep down, I know I gone too far this time.
I stare out the window. Even though it’s getting dark out, I can see we in the middle a nowhere. No lights from no city.
Nothing. It looks just like I feel, all empty inside.
I don’t know why I stopped going to school. I guess I didn’t wanna waste no more time with teachers and homework and all a that, ’cause what difference do it make in the end? I’ll never do nothing great in my life. Do they really think I’m gonna be like Obama? Not a chance. I just feel sorry for Mama for thinking that I could be somebody.
She just found out yesterday that I missed the last four weeks of school. That I been hiding them letters and erasing the messages from the vice principal, even duckin’ the truancy officer when he comes by. With her working so much, that wasn’t so hard to do ’cause I done it before and knew all the tricks. But it was the first time I got caught, on account of the truancy officer finding me tagging the back of the school cafeteria while school was going on. Stupid.
She really lost it when she found out they was gonna suspend me for the rest of the year. If I wasn’t twelve, they woulda kicked me out for good, but now they talking about holding me back.
I ain’t never seen her so sad before, like she thought it was all her fault. It made me feel like dirt seeing her sittin’ on the kitchen floor crying, but I knew there was nothin’ I could do to help her, ’cept to let her get it all out. That’s how we deal.
Today, Mama had to skip work to come in to talk to the principal. He went on and on about how I was in danger—rattling off a buncha numbers like how four outta every ten black boys drop outta school, and seven outta ten can’t get no job and ’cause a that, six of us will end up in prison. I could see Mama sinking into herself, like he was saying it was all her fault for not being a good mama.
In the old days, seemed she had the energy to read to me and stuff, and we made drawings together or laid under the covers, talking about where we would go if we could live anywhere else but Detroit. . . .
But that was when I was a kid. Them days is gone. Kids can be happy ’cause they don’t know better, but when you get older, well, you just know it’s all a big lie. Last three years, Mama’s been so moody, like a cloud passed in front of her face. Sometime she look at me and it’s like she don’t see me. I been on my own a lot ’cause a that and ’cause she gotta work so much. I been roaming the streets, skippin’ school and hanging with my friends, staying out late, which she don’t like. We ain’t been doing nothing bad . . . but we ain’t exactly been doin’ nothing good neither.
It was weird hearing the principal say things about me like I wasn’t there, even though I was. He told Mama that since there was a couple weeks left of school, he was gonna suspend me till the summer session started. He said that going to summer school was the only way I could get outta repeating the seventh grade, and not only did I have to show up, but I had to pass the end-of-year exam too. Then he said I needed to seriously think about my life so I could get my priorities straight. Otherwise, things was gonna get much worse for me, and I would end up like one of them boys he was talkin’ about.
Looking at Mama’s face, I could tell she already thought it was too late.
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A fascinating glimpse of a culture most readers will not have heard of.
Neri's story is original in theme and inspirational in tone and content.