Meet Sweetness, who has saved an abandoned baby and held up a convenience store, both on the same day. And Starr, who arrives on her Day-Glo orange bicycle to baby-sit for a summer -- and changes a family forever. And Victor, who cannot hear but sees clearly that his brother and sister will soon learn to fly. In twelve taut, emotional stories, Angela Johnson explores the hardship, hope, and surprising acts of compassion in the lives of young people gone from home.
About the Author
Angela Johnson is an American poet and children's book writer. Her children's picture books, including ,When I Am Old with You and A Sweet Smell of Roses, are poetic stories about African-American families and friendship. She has also written for teens, including the Michael L. Printz and Corretta Scott King Award-winning novel The First Part Last. She also won Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award for Tell Me a Story, Mama.
Read an Excerpt
Sweetness found a baby once in the furnace room of an old burned-out building by the city bus garage. The baby was wrapped in a blanket and had only a diaper on. (Sweetness used to hang out there 'cause it was quiet, something her house never was.) She picked the baby up and it started to cry. Sweetness figured it was glad to see someone; anyone.
She waited right there. That's what she told me. She'd even left the baby for a minute in the building and called her mom on a nearby pay phone, to tell her she'd found a baby. Her mom hung up on her.
She went back to the building, but the afternoon got dark and nobody came. The baby stopped crying, smiled, and slept. Sweetness held the baby the whole night long.
In the morning she found a box near the building and put the baby in it. She said the baby was real wet by then, but kept smiling at her as she walked the ten blocks to the police station. Sweetness looked all around before she left the baby on the station steps. She called the station from across the street at a doughnut shop. And a few seconds later a cop came out and took the baby back in with him.
Sweetness told me a long time after that she wasn't ever going to have kids. She said she didn't know what made people do what they did. Nobody in the world should do something so sick as to leave a little baby alone. . . .
An hour after she dropped the baby off, Sweetness robbed a convenience store with a gun she'd stolen from one of her uncles. She'd never been in trouble before and it was a long time before I understood. She was calling out for help. Mama said she was, but nobody heard her; not even her mom.
The kid minding thestore said he could barely see Sweetness from behind the high counter, but he could see the gun. She got one hundred dollars and a box of candy bars.
Sweetness said she never cried when they caught her, guns pointed, in the building where she found the baby. She had to swallow the candy bar in her mouth before she put her hands up and said real softly that she didn't have a gun. (She'd thrown it inside a mailbox after the robbery.) She said ten years old was too old to cry.
The cop who had taken the baby away held her hand as they walked her to the squad car.
That was the beginning. Sweetness stayed in and out of trouble. I'd get letters from her when she was in juvenile detention and foster homes. I waited for them; and I always waited for her to come back.
In Ohio you can bury yourself under the early morning cool dirt in August and not stay the least bit cool. Sweetness walks around all summer with one of those ice packs stuck to her head.
She comes over most days, early, and I find her swinging on the hammock on the screened-in side porch. She swings in time to some music my mama's put on in the house. Her sweaty brown legs aren't much longer than they were five years ago when she was taken away from that burned-out building.
Today she winks at me and pushes off against the wall and has fallen asleep before I can say anything much that would have mattered.
When Sweetness wakes up I'm scooping ants and putting them out a hole in the front screen of the porch.
"Reyetta. Do you think August is the most dangerous month of the whole year?"
I push the last ant out and go back over to the wicker chair beside her.
"I don't know about dangerous, girl, but it's the hottest. I guess it could be dangerous, too."
"I heard some old men sit over by Hannah's Market talking about how they can't wait for all the neighborhood kids to get back in school. They talk about how everybody is getting nastier and nastier to each other in the heat."
I put my feet up on the wall next to her.
"They should open up more hydrants."
"What? So the man from the city can try to close them and get beat up again? You know what happened--and he even lived in the neighborhood."
"Yeah, that was pretty sick."
I hear the front door slam and Mama calling to me.
She clicks down the front steps in her heels.
I press my face to the screen so she can see me.
"Stay around the house today, okay?"
I start to get a big whine going before she puts her hands on her hips and points at me.
Okay was all she wanted to hear before she got in the car and pulled it onto the road.
I look up the avenue and I can already see the heat waves. Sweetness says it's like no day she ever remembers and it's just seven in the morning. She's already feeling restless.
I say, "You aren't going to get in trouble today, are you?"
Me and Sweetness set up the wading pool in the backyard and get out Mama's Motown. We splash and dance around the yard till the water is warm. We dance for two straight hours, and lip-sync to Supremes songs, then get my cat, Moogie, wet. . . . Most of the morning is gone and we eat bologna sandwiches and pickles till we almost get sick.
Five years ago, when the welfare gave Sweetness back to her mom, the first thing she did was ride her bike over to my house. I remember how we pedaled as hard as we could to the Dairy Queen, feeling ten and celebrating that the only things Sweetness missed were me and ice cream.
We'd gone to preschool together and had pretty much never been apart except for the time she spent in foster homes.
We don't talk about what Sweetness does when she's not around me. I guess it's better that way.
I don't think I've ever seen her frown. Sweetness comes by her name honestly. She says "Thank you" and "Yes, ma'am" to my mama. She helps carry groceries to old people's cars and gives up her seat on the bus a lot.
Mama says the reason Sweetness is always in trouble is that her mom spends so much time in church, and not enough time with Sweetness. Mama says Miss Lorene can see God, up high, but can't even see her own child.
Sweetness once told me, "My mom is one of those high-heeled church ladies who sings gospel and hugs everybody with a 'Bless you, baby' and a 'Praise the Lord.' But she's the same woman who didn't miss me for three days 'cause she was at some revival."
Miss Lorene has found herself a quieter place. Away from her kids and the worries of the world. Sometimes she's in the house and sometimes she's not. That's about it for her.
Sweetness said when she was little she used to get on her knees beside her mom and pray with her. She said she used to pray to see God. Her mom would tell her that if she didn't see Him, she wasn't right with Him.
"So I went looking for Him," Sweetness said. "I looked for Him behind our house and in cars. I'd looked at Third Avenue Baptist first and hadn't found Him. By the time spring came around I'd been looking all winter and because I couldn't find Him--I refused to recite my Easter speech."
Miss Lorene had a screaming fit outside the church and Sweetness didn't look for God anymore. She just gave up looking, I guess.
My mama's room smelled like peppermint gum and lemons. Most of the clothes from her closet were spread all over the white cotton bedspread as me and Sweetness tried them on.
Sweetness had on one of Mama's strapless dresses and a pair of red high heels. She strutted back and forth past the standing mirror.
"I'm fine, girl!"
I grabbed one of Mama's hats and put it on her head. I had on a long, white silk blouse, dark round sunglasses, and no shoes. We looked at each other and fell on the floor laughing. We lay there and looked up at the turning ceiling fan. It was the first time that day I felt cool.
We watched the blades turn, then we watched each other. The last thing I heard was Sweetness's whispered breathing. I moved closer to her and soon didn't hear anything.
Once Sweetness told me I was all she had. She said she loved me and there would be no other person like me for her in the whole world.
Her mom told her it was wrong to love me like she did. Sweetness didn't understand it at first. She only got real upset when her mom said God wouldn't like her loving another girl.
Since Sweetness couldn't help loving me and was always wanting her mom to be there for her, her heart got ripped. Just ripped all to pieces.
My braids covered my eyes.
I woke up from a dream and nudged Sweetness awake. She turned and put her arm around me. It was so hot, even the flies weren't moving. I heard a woman calling out on the street for somebody to come home.
"I dreamed I was riding in a balloon and had left the earth forever. I was waving to everybody I knew. I didn't want to go, but I thought it wouldn't be so bad."
"Was I there, waving?" Sweetness asked.
"No, you weren't there."
"I thought you said you were waving to everybody you knew; and I wasn't there."
That was the one thing that had bothered me about the dream. I didn't tell her that, though.
I said, "Maybe you were beside me."
Sweetness smiled, stood up, and kicked off the high-heeled shoes.
"Maybe," she said. "Maybe."
We cleaned up Mama's room and Sweetness ran down the stairs to the living room. She picked at one of the old sandwiches we'd left and headed out the door. The sun was getting lower.
"Got to meet somebody," she said. Then she came over and took the round sunglasses from my pocket, hugged me, and left. I watched her jump over the fire hydrant on the tree lawn and wave to somebody in a passing car.
She disappeared into the heat of the city.
Mama didn't wake me later to tell me that Sweetness was dead. This time Sweetness was taller when she put the gun up to the clerk's face, and she didn't dump the gun in a mailbox, so I guess the cops did what they did. . . .
Mama says she sat in my bedroom door for a while and stared into space. She said she picked some book off my floor and watched me sleep.
Mama says she's never seen me sleep so hard. She thought I was having a dream.
I was dreaming Sweetness was floating away in the balloon, leaving me on the ground, and I was mad. She kept yelling at me with those round sunglasses on that she hadn't really given up, she was going to find God. . . .
Walter Hamilton used to draw pictures of barns everywhere he went. You could tell where he had his lunch or got sent to detention. Barns. All over the walls.
Beautiful barns, too. He'd color them in and would talk to you about all the different kinds he'd seen, and where.
He'd talk about the chew mail pouch barns and how he'd found out why the man who had first painted them had retired from barn painting. I listened because I was scared and interested.
We started figuring that when Walter wasn't in Juvenile Hall or in the hospital with some fight wound, he must live his life climbing around most every Ohio barn he found outside the city.
Most of us didn't leave the city enough, I guess.
Walter said it was happening in the country, though. We oughta see it.
We were all sitting on the lunch tables nodding our heads, and I was probably the only one thinking that there was nobody in the world like Walter.
This kid Marshall even whispered, "Who could be crazy for barns growing up off East Hundred-and-Third?"
Walter didn't hear him, and I was glad. Then he said something about one of his uncles having a pickup and he'd see us all in the park on Saturday morning.
Five in the morning looks like the moon, like nowhere I've ever been. Even the streets look clean. It's so quiet . . . like the first snow before everybody walks on it and the cars drive through. Pure and soft.
We are leaning together in the back of the truck--so we won't fall out from the tiredness. All of us brush blue flannel from the blankets off each other. I get to wondering how we could have been talked into this, but then remember that I wasn't. Nobody knew it, but I would have gone anywhere to be near Walter.
I watch him start up the truck with his dog beside him.
He turns and taps on the back window.
"Got room for one rider."
I see no one moving, so I start to jump out of the truck bed and head up front.
I hear one girl I know from study hall say before I leave, "Is this stupid?"
Everybody but me nods. I open the door to the cab and slide in beside Walter's dog. He smiles. Walter, not the dog. Then all I can think of is: Can farm animals bite, and how beautiful the city looks, left behind in the mist, and how I want to hold Walter's hand (forget that!).
Then we're beyond the middle of nowhere.
Walter passes out Styrofoam cups of sweet cream coffee that he empties from a big thermos. He smiles at all of us and it's like he's putting a blanket just out of the dryer over me.
A few minutes before, he'd driven the truck off the paved road onto this dirt one. I look over at Walter and daydream that we've driven alone into the country. We're having a picnic by the road. . . .
Walter is talking.
Now ten city kids from in and around East 103rd Street start listening to a lecture about barns. Barn usage and color. Barn statistics and the ages of barns in the state of Ohio. We are wide-eyed and slurp the hot coffee like it's the only thing keeping us alive.
It all seems like a dream.
Table of Contents
|A Summer's Tale||28|
|By the Time You Read This||64|