Excerpted from the hardcover edition
Pop and Uncle Elroy smoke the strangest cigarettes I've ever smelled. They smell sort of like skunk juice and gasoline mixed with the incense they burn at Nana and Papa Tanks's church, St. Paul's Episcopal. When Pop and Uncle Elroy are both home in the summertime they stay up late at night hanging out in the backyard, sitting below my bedroom window with the streetlights glowing on them from foot to midbelly. The rest of their bodies are hidden under the shadow of the oak trees in our backyard. They always sit facing away from our house toward the next yard over, blowing that smelly-smoke up into my window, and sometimes if I breathe it in long enough it makes me dizzy but in a giggly good way. I like it, it's nice.
I would ask Pop about his strange-smelling funny-cigarettes but I'm afraid to ask him questions anymore. He's always in a rush and never tells me where he's going when he leaves. Whenever I see him putting on his black Rasta cap, I find a reason to be near the door so I can try to stall him up and make him stay. I used to always ask him where he was going and most of the time he didn't hear me and he'd just leave. Other times he simply says, "Out," and forgets to say good-bye. But the last time he left, he yelled at me and this is why I don't ask him questions anymore and would rather spy.
I saw him in the living room putting on his Rasta cap and I went into the hallway and opened up the closet near the front door where Ma keeps the extra soap, blankets, washcloths, towels, and toilet paper. When I opened the door a stack of washcloths fell from the top shelf. I caught them and looked up, and down came an avalanche of towels and blankets on my head. I didn't fall, but it dazed me. I heard Pop's footsteps coming and I shook the mess onto the floor. He was wearing his long black leather coat with his black sunglasses and Rasta cap. His shades were so dark I couldn't tell if he saw me or not.
"Where ya going, Pop?" I blurted out, loud, so he could hear me.
He grabbed the doorknob. "Out."
For some reason I was feeling brave and so I did something I'd never done before. I asked him again. A little louder, making sure he heard me this time.
"Out like where, Pop?" I said it loud but nicely. "It's so big outside. You could go anywhere." I smiled and he stopped and took his hand off the doorknob and turned to me.
"Out, I said!"
"I know." I put my hands in my pockets and rocked back onto my heels. "But like"
"Andre! Don't ask me any goddamn questions." He clapped his hands together and squatted down. He pointed his hand in my face and then at the mess on the floor around me. "Clean. It. Up!"
I could hear the anger scraping through his closed teeth. He didn't understand my question but I didn't want to make him any angrier.
"Better be clean before I get back home!" He stood.
I was too scared to look at him so I looked at the scuffs on his boots and tried to keep my breath.
"Out of order questioning a grown man like you have no broughtupsy."
On the floor beneath us I could see his shadow shaking its head at me.
I focused harder on his boot scuffs trying to stay calm but my lip started shaking too bad and I couldn't breathe. I tried to gulp but whimpered instead and he heard me. He grabbed my shoulder and I dropped to the ground. It didn't hurt as much as it scared me, but I was down and he was standing over me. I hugged my head into my lap. He reached down and snatched me up by the side of the shirt and I hugged into myself as tight as I could.
"Get up and cut it out. Before I give you something to cry for."
He let me go, opened the door, and slammed it behind him.
I stayed on the floor crying in the blankets and towels until I felt stupid. I wiped my face with a washcloth and got off the floor and stomped to my room. I left those towels there because I didn't drop them, they fell on me and that's not my fault.
The only other place I'd ever smelled the smell of Pop and Uncle Elroy's cigarettes was once at Kelly Park. I was with Ma and it made her really angry. We'd parked up top of the hill at the track and Ma held my hand and we walked down to the basketball courts together. She was only coming down to see me make a lefty layup and then she was supposed to go back up and walk the track, but these older kids were hanging out, taking up half the court. Some of them were sitting around a picnic table playing cards and others were lying on the court and in the grass.
We stopped on the sideline and I recognized the older kids that hang on the other end of our block. I let go of Ma's hand and started dribbling my ball. I knew most of them only by face. They had a car parked at half court with its trunk open, blasting a Wu-Tang Clan song I'd never heard before. I knew I liked the song when my main man Ol' Dirty Bastard started singing and beat-boxing over the beat doing his ad libs. I couldn't understand what he was saying, but it sounded funny and I liked the beat.
Right before the beat drops it pauses and it gets quiet and then ODB yells, "You bitch-ass nigga!" And the song starts.
I started cracking up. Ol' Dirty Bastard's my favorite member in Wu-Tang Clan. His voice is so raspy and mousy he sounds like Mike Tyson with sand in his throat. As I laughed I looked up at Ma and her forehead wrinkled like a chewed Tootsie Roll. She folded her arms across her chest. I dribbled between my legs as we stood on the sideline watching the older boys swirl their clear plastic cups of what looked like the last couple sips of apple juice. They'd already played, most of them had taken off their shirts and changed out of sneakers into flip-flops. A few of them stood in a little circle and started smoking those cigarettes.
I recognized one of the guys smoking, it was Ma's friend Miss Myra's oldest son, Stanley. I see him around but I don't really know him. He pulled from the cigarette a few times and passed it to the guy on his left. After Ol' Dirty Bastard's ad libs, Stanley turned toward us and started bopping his shoulders and swaying to the music and all the guys started laughing and cheering him on. He was shimmying his way toward us. His eyes were dragon red and he slowly blew smoke out of his nose like an angry bull. When Ol' Dirty Bastard's verse came on, he closed his eyes and tossed his head back, waving his hands in the air like he was shooting pistols as he sang along with Ol' Dirty Bastard.
As high as Wu-Tang get,
Allah, allow us pop this shit
Just like black shoe fit
If you can't wear it, then don't fuck with it!
He jumped into a ghetto-girl pose, two feet on the ground, leaning hard to his left side, popping his hips, arms crossed like he was mocking Ma. He looked at us laughing. A guy passed him back the cigarette and this is when I first smelled that smell. I'd never smelled anything so strange, but I liked it. I nudged Ma's leg and she looked down at me.
"What's that they're smoking, that smells like that?" I whispered. "It's weird."
"Ayo, lil' man. Lemme get a shot. Lil' man!" I was glad Stanley didn't hear me.
I wound up to pass him my basketball when Ma reached down and wrestled it away from me.
"Andre, let's go." She tucked the ball under her arm and grabbed my hand pulling me back toward the track and we started walking.
I tried to wiggle away but her grip was too tight.
"But, Ma, I thought" I whined but she wouldn't let go.
"Ayo, lil' man?" Stanley called, but we just kept walking.
We got to the top of the hill and Ma loosened her grip but didn't let go. She looked down at me.
"They aren't smoking cigarettes, Andre. They're frying their brains, they're foolish," Ma said.
She looked back down the hill at Stanley and yelled, "Kids have to play here too!"
Stanley and all his friends laughed and so did I. I thought she was kidding.
"Why would anyone want to fry their brain, Ma?" I asked her.
"Because they are foolish. You're not like them, you're a cut above the rest. Stay away from guys like them, Andre. They're no-good men."
I didn't understand but I said okay. For whatever reason Stanley and his friends brain-frying made Ma angry. It made her so mad I got stuck walking boring laps around the track with her, every now and again trying to get her to let go of my hand.
The second time I smelled that smell, it was midsummer and I was in bed. It came floating into my bedroom from outside, a little bit after Ma kissed me and Nina good night and tucked us in. I woke up to pee and when I went to lie back down I heard voices coming from out our backyard. I thought I smelled that smell but I wasn't sure, but after another gust of wind rattled my Reggie Lewis and Len Bias posters, I knew it was that same smell from the park. My heart started racing. I had to see who the brain-frying foolish-guys were making noise outside my window.
I snuck out of bed, pushed my toy chest up against the wall, climbed on top, and opened the window. I knelt down, leaning my face against the screen, breathing lightly so I could listen and see. My ears started to tingle and my cheeks got hot when I realized it was Pop and Uncle Elroy blowing that smelly-smoke into my room. I knew Pop was grumpy but I didn't know he was a bad man. I didn't think he was all that bad. I was confused.
If him and Uncle Elroy were foolish bad men then why did Ma and Aunty Diamond marry them? I wasn't sure what it was, but I got a feeling something strange was going on with Ma and Pop.
I could hear the nearby dance hall music so clear, but their voices seemed to only break through the songs in jumbles. Pop and Uncle Elroy both talked Jamaican, not all the time like Papa Tanks and Grampy Battel, they turned theirs on and off. When they hung out together they turned their Jamaican accents on, real thick. At first I couldn't understand what they were saying or talking about. So I started spying on them every night they were out there, and after listening to them a few weeks I started to understand a little bit. I learned that "Jah" has something to do with everything, and everything bad was somehow caused by "Babylon." Whenever they spoke, everything they said started with "I an' I" or "Brethren." I also learned that they call their weird-smelling cigarettes "vitals." After about three or four of those green-bottle sodas and two or three vitals apiece they'd go silent. Two red dots pulsing in the dark.
Every now and again the dance hall music would erupt into gunshots or police sirens and the whole song would flip into rewind and the DJ would scream out over the song. He'd yell Jamaican curses, there's a bunch of them and they all end in a clot: pussy-clot, blood-clot, bumba-rass-clot, anything ending in "clot," really. Or the DJ would say even more random stuff like "Bulla-Bread" or "To-Backfoot." He would shout three or four words tops, and nothing more. Pop and Uncle Elroy would say weird stuff too, like "Selassie-I" or "To-blouse an' skirt," and they'd laugh so hard. Half the time they said no more than one or two words to each other. It's like they didn't even need words to be friends. I'd kneel, watching them inhaling their vitals until I was dizzy with sleep or Pop said he was going to bed and I'd run back to mine.
Some nights Uncle Elroy wouldn't come back upstairs to Aunty Diamond. Instead he'd hop the fence and cut through our neighbors' yard heading toward the parkway. He wouldn't say bye to Pop either, he'd just laugh and say, "Riddim and Spice," and hop the fence. Pop would chuckle and call back, "N'everyt'ing nice." Some nights after Uncle Elroy left, Pop would get up and hop the fence too. Sometimes he'd be home the next morning. Sometimes he'd be gone for days, sometimes weeks.
When he left, I just hoped it wouldn't be for months like Uncle Elroy.
On the nights he stayed, I liked it better that way, but I couldn't ever tell if he did. He'd just sit there all alone in the shadows. Without Uncle Elroy he didn't listen to the radio. He'd sit in quiet, with one leg on the ground and one on the edge of his chair, rocking himself side to side, muttering to himself. I always tried but I could never quite hear him. Every once in a while he'd sigh real deep to himself, blowing smoke into the shadowy darkness. One hand holding a green-bottle soda and the other a burning vital.
As much as I spied on him, the one thing I never got to see was what was on his mind. What was out there for him in the streets on the nights he stayed away? When he was gone, I wondered if he was out looking for Uncle Elroy or off doing his own thing.
On the nights he stayed, I'd watch him sitting out there all alone and I don't know why he always seemed so sad but I could just tell. I wondered if he wanted company. If I went out there and sat with him, would it cheer him up?
I wanted to go out there and sit next to him. Maybe rest my head on his shoulder. I'd tell him that I liked the smell of his vitals. I'd ask him why that smell makes me dizzy and sleepy after a while. I'd ask him why he wanted to fry his brain, and if he knew that Ma thought he was a foolish and bad man. More than anything I wanted to know why he got so mad when I asked him questions and why he never took me out with him.