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Edge of Smoke (First Chapter)

Updated: May 29



Edge of Smoke

Copyright © 2024

by Karlyle Tomms

All rights reserved

Fresh Ink Group

An Imprint of:

The Fresh Ink Group, LLC

1021 Blount Avenue #931

Guntersville, AL 35976

Edition 1.0 2024

Cover design by Stephen Geez / FIG

Cover art by Anik / FIG

Book design by Amit Dey / FIG

Associate publisher Beem Weeks / FIG

Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976 and except for brief

quotations in critical reviews or articles, no portion of this book’s content may be

stored in any medium, transmitted in any form, used in whole or part, or sourced

for derivative works such as videos, television, and motion pictures, without prior

written permission from the publisher.

Cataloging-in-Publication Recommendations:

FIC073000 FICTION / LGBTQ+ / Transgender

FIC043000 FICTION / Coming of Age

FIC030000 FICTION / Thrillers / Suspense

Library of Congress Control Number: 2023922153

ISBN-13: 978-1-958922-65-1 Softcover

ISBN-13: 978-1-958922-66-8 Hardcover

ISBN-13: 978-1-958922-67-5 Ebooks


Dedication

This book is dedicated to all those who have been marginalized

and mistreated simply because of who they are. It is dedicated to

those forced to play a role rather than being allowed to love themselves

and be themselves. It is dedicated to all who have felt unloved, ridiculed,

rejected, hated, and abused simply for being who they are. This

book is dedicated to the unconditional love that needs to be shared

with all people and to those who genuinely come to understand that

love is the bottom line, for this is a book about love.


Stephanie's Note

All I wanted was to be myself and live the life I knew was mine

to live. Yet, almost everyone around me tried to mold me into

something else. Only one person initially accepted me without trying

to change or force me into a mold where others thought I belonged.

Only one person stood by me and gave me the courage to be myself,

no matter what others thought about me or tried to do to me. I gained

strength from her love, compassion, guidance, and encouragement.

She didn’t try to make me into something she wanted me to be, but

she taught me right from wrong and the difference between love and

control. I also gained strength from what all the others tried to force

me into. I gained strength from what I went through and how I was

punished for not fitting the mold they wanted to force me to accede.

I gained strength from abuse not only by those who tried to force me

into being something or someone who I was not meant to be but by

those who sought only to use me as satisfaction for their debauchery

and malice.

For my entire life, I fought to learn how to love myself because the

abuse and the constant barrage of attempts to change me taught me

that I was worth less than other human beings, that there was something

wrong with me, and that I was an aberration of nature as well

as an abomination to the church. They were not required to love me.

They were not required to approve of me, nor were they even required

to accept me. All they needed to do was allow me to live without being

tormented for not becoming what they wanted me to be. Initially, only

one person, one soul of an angel, stood by me and taught me that I was

worth loving and that I deserved my place on earth regardless of what

others might think of me. That one person taught me I am a certified

member of humanity, just like everyone else. I deserve the respect,

honor, and dignity that every human being deserves; for we are all

part of one humanity. Regardless of our differences, unique traits, or

life course, we are all worth valuing and loving as children of the same

creator.

Humanity is like smoke. There are varying levels of density and

shades as smoke dissipates into and becomes the air, but how do you

know when smoke ceases to be smoke and becomes the air? Smoke is

only a temporary density of specific molecules that soon fades into the

mix of molecules we call the atmosphere. Like smoke, we all eventually

ascend into the hidden world of existence beyond this life, where

there is no definition of one from the other.

How do you define the edge of smoke? How do you determine

what part of the smoke differs from another? Some portions may seem

darker than others, but those portions are still smoke. The lighter portions

where smoke begins to fade into the air are still the same smoke,

and when smoke becomes the air, it dissipates into and becomes one

with the indistinguishable whole. The eyes alone cannot discern when

smoke blends into the air. Even though the smoke appears separate

from the air, it dissolves into the whole and is no longer recognized

as distinct or different. Human beings may also seem different from

each other, but they are still all human beings. In the end, we all blend

into one unified human race despite all the variations that occur. Ultimately,

we are all more the same than we are different. In truth, we

are more united than separate. In the meantime, human beings keep

wanting to create niches and roles that they try to force others into

because it helps them to feel safe in their own assigned role, or they

resent not being able to break free from their engrained expectations of

what it means to be yourself, what it means to be a man, what it means

to be a woman, what it means to be religious or even a human being.

When we finally have a society that fully embraces our differences

and uniqueness rather than fearing and hating it, allowing people to

live peacefully and be who they are without interference and oppression,

we will finally have a civilized society.


“Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these

my brothers, you did it to me. ” (Matthew 25:40)


DISCLAIMER

There are words and phrases in this book that would be considered

offensive by today’s standards. However, the terminology was common

during the time frame of the story. These words and phrases are not

intended to be offensive toward any person or social group but to portray

the time’s language accurately. An example would be that the term

transgender did not come into common use until the 1990s.

All characters in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to

any person or persons other than the author is purely coincidental as

these characters are not drawn from any person known to the author.

If I have misunderstood or misrepresented anyone or anything

within this writing, please accept my sincere apology, as no part of this

story is intended to be offensive to anyone.


NOTE: Stephanie, the protagonist of this novel, was introduced as a

character in my previous book, The Calling Dream, as each story presents

a character who will become the protagonist of another novel in

the Soul Encounters series.


C h a p t e r 1

Hurting Is Living


My so-called mother was a whore. There is no way to deny it. She

would fuck anyone for a cigarette. You don’t want to know what

she would do for a heroin needle in her arm. My wounded heart had no

sympathy for her. The abandoned child within my growing skin could

not fathom the difference between malice and violent anguish. As an

adult, I realized she was also a product of abuse and neglect. Her eyes

were not always hollow because of drugs. Her eyes were first made hollow

because her soul had been dug out of her childhood and discarded

like kitchen garbage scraped from the sink. Unlike me, she had no one.

She had no real friends and no one to turn to. She grew up half-black

in southern Missouri, a part of the country where almost everyone is

white. Growing up in the 1950s, she had nowhere to turn from the

torment she experienced at home, in the community, at school, or any

playground. The white half of her still could not save her from the

word, nigger. She learned to isolate, withdraw into herself, and suck

any morsel of satisfaction she could find, no matter where she found it.

Unfortunately, she found it in drugs.

I don’t know that she ever tried to be a real mother to me, but it

was not unusual that I was left unattended while growing up in the St.

Louis slums of Pruitt Igoe in the 1960s. Even when I was very small,

she trusted me to our apartment and the Pruitt Igoe grounds while she

ignored the danger, the acrid stench, and the selfish wheedle of the

slums where society pitched the unwanted. The vast majority of the

time, I played alone with the few toys she might have picked up at some

yard sale or out of a garbage can. I dared not go out onto the grounds

where I faced dangers from many instead of the one with whom I

lived. My toys were likely broken before I ever got them, somebody

else’s discards. Even for Christmas, if there were anything, I would

likely receive something already worn and misused. My so-called

grandmother, from down in the Ozarks, might send me a Christmas

card with a dollar in it, but that was quickly snatched from my hand

for “safe keeping.”

It was not easy to be a child, either in our assigned cubicle or the

whole of Pruitt Igoe, and I didn’t associate any more than I had to.

Even if we had been entirely black, there were few places where danger

did not overhang, like clouds full of lightning. Pruitt Igoe was

unsafe, and my so-called mother was a light-skinned biracial. I was

even lighter-skinned than her. I am not sure that she didn’t resent me

for that. Maybe my father was white, but I didn’t know who he was.

Our light skin was unambiguous in the almost all-black slums, and

sometimes, the hatred that white folks commonly cast onto blacks got

dumped back on us in a pecking order of resentment. Those who feel

the most devalued try to find someone to disrespect even more than

themselves. It probably didn’t help that my so-called mother had a

penchant for bedding white men.

Pruitt Igoe was a place where white society could shove away all

those they didn’t want to accept. My so-called mother and I were

scapegoats for that, called high yellow, redbone, and other things that

were not as kind. We were easy targets for rage that often did not find

its way back to where it started. We were neither white nor black, misfits

in either culture.

I took a lot when I was growing up. I took a lot from many people

of both races. I took a lot in my own home and from the asshole my

so-called mother used to farm me out to. He did things to me that

she never wanted to admit, even though she had to have known. So, I

was tough. I had to be tough to survive. Everyone always told me that

boys had to be tough, that I should buck up, and that I shouldn’t cry.

I was taught that real men, boys growing up to be men, take it and

keep going. I did all that, but I was never a boy. I may have been born

with male genitals, but I have never been and never will be male. I was

strong anyway. I may have been born in a boy’s body, but I have always

been female, and tough is something that lots of girls have to be, especially

in places like Pruitt Igoe.

My so-called mother could not stand that I was a girl. She hated my

femininity and tortured me for it every time she witnessed it. Somehow,

it was the straw on the camel’s back of her shame and self-loathing.

That she hated herself was evident, addictions notwithstanding,

but her addictions were her way of numbing the anguish she had carried

all her life. Within her was the insidious concept that, no matter

what, she could never be worth as much as others and never be whole

or happy, and she passed that down to me. My femininity was only

another mark of shame embedded into her graphically scarred soul.

The first time I saw her with a needle in her arm, I must have been

about six years old. I had been playing on my bedroom floor with a

three-wheeled toy truck, rolling it over to an old shoe box that I pretended

was a beauty shop. I wanted dolls, but she would never give me

dolls, and if I happened to get hold of one, she would grab it out of my

hands and scream, “How many times do I have to tell you, boys, don’t

play with fucking dolls!” If she found them, she would pull the heads

and arms off them and throw them in the trash. I tried to make sure

she didn’t see them.

On that particular day, I had been left in our apartment alone. I

had a mangled Barbie in my beauty shop shoe box, but I quickly stashed

it when I heard the click in the lock of our front door. I resented her

for what she did to my dolls, but that was only one in a collection of

resentments that hardened into hatred, which I carried for much of

my life. For a while, I hated her viciously and wanted to kill her. As I

grew older, I refused to call her Mom, Mother, or any facsimile of that.

Her name was Mable, but I wouldn’t even use that without attaching

the word bitch. I called her fake mom, so-called mother, Mable-bitch, and

occasionally - cunt, when she couldn’t hear me. Over the years, I learned

that my hate harmed me more than her. So, after many years and a lot

of therapy, I finally stopped hating my so-called mother, but that came

long after she was no longer in my life.

After the lock clicked, I heard the front door squeak and heard her

come in with some man—not unusual. There were always people, primarily

men, in and out of our apartment. If she wasn’t buying drugs,

she was trying to deal drugs but was never very good at dealing. She

used more than she sold, and more than once, that got her in a lot of

trouble. I became accustomed to seeing bruises and busted lips, but

she was lucky that was all she got. Usually, she whored for drugs and

semi-kept it from me, but I knew there were things she did with men

in her room, and it was not unusual to see some man crossing the living

room buttoning his shirt, trying to pull up his pants or slip his feet

back into his shoes. I never really knew exactly what happened in her

room until that day.

At first, I paid no more attention than usual and went back to

playing, assuming that she would not catch me with what was left of

my doll once she went through the living room to her room. The usual

sounds of adult banter came through thin walls, but this time, the sound

was not as muffled, and I could hear what they were saying. Usually, the

door to her bedroom was closed, so only muffled sounds could be heard.

However, the unmistakable sounds of adult conversation were evident

that day. I didn’t understand anything they were talking about, something

about a horse and needing a fix. I had never heard that man’s voice

before. Sometimes, the same men would come around again, but it was

not unusual that a man would come through our apartment and never

be seen again. None of them had ever stayed for long.

“Come on, Daddy, don’t get hairy about it,” she said. “Momma just

needs a little help with a do-up. I’ll do anything you want. Come on,

baby. Momma needs a little more than money.”

I heard him say something about her being a sleepwalker and that

she needed to quit the brown sugar. I heard her pleading, begging like

she was terrified that he might walk out. The banter went on for a few

minutes. Then I heard him saying, “Okay, okay, okay.”

Hesitantly, I went to investigate. I was very careful about it. I learned

very young never to disturb her and definitely never call for her. When

I called for her, if she came at all, she was in a rage, and her rage was

something I didn’t want to face. I carefully peeked into her bedroom

from my doorway across the living room corner. We had a two-bedroom

flat, and both bedrooms opened onto the living room. I had no idea

why her door was left open that day. Maybe she had been too drunk to

remember to close it, but the sounds were more evident because of it.

I walked silently and cautiously across the corner of the living room

to the door of her room. Then I stopped at the doorway, hid behind

the door facing, and peeked around. I saw her sitting at the edge of

her bed, an old mattress on the floor shoved up under the window. She

had a rubber thing around her arm and was sticking a needle into the

inside of her elbow. She didn’t even notice me. Often, I wasn’t noticed.

I was more like an object in her way than her child, and as long as I

stayed out of her way, she didn’t seem to mind too much.

She pulled the needle from her arm and tossed it and the rubber

thing onto the floor. The white man with her stood by, watching as

she did all this, unbuttoning his shirt and loosening his belt. When

she had finished, he asked her if she was ready. She pulled her skirt off

and scooted back on her mattress with mismatched sheets and blankets

strewn about. She glanced at the door, and I darted back behind the

wall. I stood there for a long time, trembling with fear that she might

have seen me and would come out raging, but she never came out.

When, at last, I peeked around and watched, the man’s pants were

off, and he was thrusting his pelvis into her pelvis. She seemed to have

almost passed out and barely noticed what he was doing. I felt a dull

shock, a numb emptiness as I peeked. I watched the way one might

watch a coffin lowered slowly into the dark ground. The man looked

up, saw me, got up, walked naked across the room, and closed the

door. Startled, I darted quickly back to my room.

A few minutes later, I heard a deep and muffled groan. A little

while after that, the man came to the door of my room as he was

tucking in a Hawaiian shirt that was buttoned only halfway up. His

thick chest hair crawled around the edges of the thin fabric. I pulled

back into the corner because I was deeply frightened of most adults,

especially men. Almost all of them would hurt me.

He quietly strolled toward me. “Hey, how are you?” he gently said.

“It’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you. Would you come over here?”

He made several attempts to coax me before I hesitantly did as

he instructed and walked up to him. He placed his thick hand on my

head and muffled my short hair. I looked up at him, then back toward

my so-called mother’s room. I didn’t know what to say. At the time, I

didn’t know what any of it meant. I only knew that I felt almost sickly

strange. I had never seen the man before, nor had I ever seen adults

doing what had just happened in my so-called mother’s room. I felt

intimidated, but I somehow knew I was safe with him. I don’t know

how I knew since I had never been safe around any of my so-called

mother’s acquaintances, but I knew he was one of the few adults who

would not hurt me. He was different. His demeanor was different.

The man reached down, placed huge hands beneath my armpits,

picked me up, and I allowed it without struggling. He put his arm

under my ass to support me, pulled me to him, and hugged me. I was

small for my age, and he could pick me up as though I might have been

a four-year-old. No man had ever hugged me before, and not many

women. Any man I had encountered had either ignored me or abused

me. My so-called mother never hugged me unless it was a show for

the cops or child protective services. This man felt warm, and the hug

felt comforting. The scent of woodsy cologne filled my nostrils, and

I turned my nose to his neck for a better whiff. Before that, I don’t

remember being genuinely hugged by anyone except Miss Mattie, my

friend who lived down the hall. Her hugs were warm and affectionate.

This man’s hug also felt affectionate, but it was a very different experience

from hugging Miss Mattie.

I had confusing, odd feelings about this stranger. The touch of

his skin was different. His body was different, thick and muscular,

unlike Miss Mattie’s skinny frame. It felt reassuring. He had a different

energy, a distinct essence of protection and strength. It was not

at all like the essence of a woman. The only way I had ever previously

been touched by any man was violent and abusive, but somehow, I felt

guarded by this stranger. Despite what I had just seen him do to my

so-called mother, I felt safe.

He carried me to our ripped and raged second-hand sofa, sat down,

placed me on his knee, and put his arm behind my back. There was

nothing else to sit on in our living room except that old sofa. Our

decrepit black and white TV sat on top of a packing crate on the opposite

side of the room. There were no pictures on the walls; the only

thing that adorned our apartment was a clock hanging on a nail beside

my so-called mother’s bedroom door, but that had fallen off the wall.

“So,” he said, smiling. “You live here?”

I nodded my head.

“What’s your name?”

“They call me Stephen,” I whispered, “but I don’t like that name.”

“Oh, your name is Stephen,” he goaded with a deep, echoing voice.

“That’s a good, manly name, isn’t it?”

I said nothing. He didn’t ask why I didn’t like my name, and I

didn’t tell him. Besides, Mable-bitch had wailed the hell out of me

when she heard me say that I preferred to be called Stephanie.

“So, Stephen,” he said, reaching his other hand into his opposite

pocket and pulling out a clean brown wallet. “Do you think you could

do something for me?”

I stared at the wallet. Then, he nudged me off his knee to stand in

front of him. He reached into his wallet and pulled out a twenty-dollar

bill and a five-dollar bill. He first handed me the twenty.

“Now when your Momma comes to—ah—wakes up.” He sweetened

his deep voice. “This is for her. You make sure she gets it. Okay?”

I nodded. Then he handed the five-dollar bill to me.

“This one I want you to keep, just a little bonus for your troubles.”

He placed the bill in my palm and folded his huge, warm hand over my

fingers to close them around it. His hand felt tender and reassuring. I

loved the feeling of it. No one, except Miss Mattie, had ever touched

me with such tenderness, but her hands were scrawny and thin.

“Now don’t tell your Momma I gave you this. It is our little secret,

and who knows, there might be more where that one came from someday.

You just give her the twenty, keep the five, and that’ll be our little

secret. If she doesn’t remember, tell her Mike left her the twenty for

services rendered. Can you remember that? Services rendered?”

I nodded.

He got up, placed the wallet in his hip pocket, and walked to the

door. He turned back to me just before he left and said, “I might come

back to see you someday. In the meantime, take good care of your

momma. She’s gonna need it.”

He winked at me and walked out the door.

After Mike left, I returned to my so-called mother’s bedroom and

peeked inside. She was still lying flat on her back, mostly naked and

unconscious. Maybe what she wanted from heron was to be unconscious.

Perhaps her feelings and experiences were so overwhelming

that she didn’t want to feel anything at all. Maybe it was her way of

being dead before she was dead.

I knew to leave her alone. I learned early in life that the last thing

I wanted to do was disturb her when she was out. I probably wouldn’t

have been able to rouse her if I had tried, but I dared not try. Too many

times, I had been pulling on her arm, trying to wake her, when the

other arm came hard across my head, knocking the crap out of me.

I returned to my room and placed the five-dollar bill on my tattered

dresser beside the door. I hid the twenty in my hiding place, where

the baseboard pulled loose from the wall at the corner of my bedroom.

There was a little hole in the plaster behind it. So, I could stuff small

things in there, and Mable-bitch would never know. I had learned to

take care of myself. There was often no money in the house to buy

anything to eat, but I sometimes lifted a bill from Mabel’s purse if

she had it. Most of the time, she didn’t, and she never knew if she had

money or she didn’t. When I had a stash, I could buy something to

eat if I could get Miss Mattie to take me to the store. I hid the food I

bought, too. If I didn’t hide it and she asked, I would say Miss Mattie

gave it to us. Besides, it was not unusual for Miss Mattie to bring a casserole

or something. Miss Mattie knew how my so-called mother was

and always shared what she had. She knew my so-called mother would

trade food stamps or commodities for drugs, and we were soon without.

So, I learned to hold back. If we went through what we had too soon,

there might be a few days when there was nothing to eat. I learned to

manage my hunger. Later in life, that helped me keep my thin, womanly

figure. I learned to starve myself before I was seven years old.

After I hid the money, I continued to play with whatever I could

find. One of my favorite games was pretending I was a princess in a

grand magical kingdom where the king and queen were both kind and

gentle people like Miss Mattie. In my imaginary kingdom, I had all

the best new toys, including Barbie dolls that had all their arms and

legs and all the accessories. I could go out into the castle courtyard and

play with magical creatures like dogs and cats that could talk or pink

goats that could fly, and I always had the most beautiful things, the

finest outfits and shoes, and the most wonderful delicious things to eat.

After I met Mike, he became the king of my fanciful kingdom, and

Miss Mattie was the queen.

I would drape a sheet around when I played and pretend it was a

sequined gown. I cut up the centers of toilet paper rolls, colored them

with crayons, and ran string through them to make my necklace. I

used some rusty scissors I found to cut around the corner of a cardboard

box and make a tiara. Although she had some costume jewelry

and a few nice outfits, I didn’t dare use any of my so-called mother’s

stuff. She would snap into a rage over the littlest thing, and it only

took getting caught one time using one of her blouses as a dress to realize

that I should never do that again. I did my best to stay out of her

way. When I was little, I was terrified of her rages. As I grew older, I

discovered I could rage just as well as she could, and I began giving it

back. Our screaming, violent fights became more like street fights than

something between a mother and her child.

Several hours after Mike left, I heard her stir in the other bedroom.

Then, she got up, staggered to my room, and stood leaning on

the door facing staring at me. She was still only partially dressed, but

her arms were now in the sleeves of her blouse. It didn’t matter. She

rarely bothered to dress around the apartment anyway, and sometimes

she sat around totally nude, especially in the summer when it was hot,

and we had only a fan to cool us. When I realized she was at the

door and looked up, she hissed, “What the hell are you looking at?” A

smirking grin stretched her mouth.

My so-called mother could have been a beautiful woman, but

she ruined any chance of that. Drugs put bags under her eyes and

deepened the sockets. The sinking skin of her face created craters

around her cheekbones. Most of the time, she never ate enough and

looked more like a starving dog than a human being. My so-called

mother had short, curly hair. She liked to keep it cut short, almost

like a man, because “I don’t have time to deal with that shit!” She

usually cut it herself rather than waste a dime on a coiffure when

the money could be devoted to drugs. She also clipped my hair

close to the scalp for the same reasons. Sometimes, she wore a hat

“Like my momma did.” She could look pretty when dressing up

and putting on some makeup and jewelry, but that was usually only

when there was a family services meeting, or she was trying to hook

up with a new trick.

Her mother was white trailer trash from the Southern Missouri

Ozarks near the Arkansas border, and her father had been black. She

grew up in the primarily white Ozarks down at the south end of Missouri,

and because she was biracial, she didn’t have a very good time

of it. There were only a few black folks in the area, and when they

married, they often had to marry a white person or someone out of

the region if they didn’t want to marry kin. There were some second cousin

weddings, I’m sure. In the 1930s through the 1950s, there was

a separate cemetery for black people outside of town because they

weren’t allowed to bury a loved one next to a white person. At that

time, there were still sundown laws where no black person was allowed

to be seen in town after dark. The only white people who would associate

with them had already been cast out by their own. Mable-bitch said

my so-called grandma and grandpa were married, but I never knew

my grandpa. My so-called grandma told me he died, but Mable-bitch

said he was in prison because he had killed some man in a bar fight. I

never knew what was true and what wasn’t. It seemed like Mable-bitch

would rather lie than tell the truth, and often, a story didn’t match

itself from one telling to the next.

My so-called grandma was meaner than Mable-bitch, and I was

thankful we didn’t visit very often. She wouldn’t come to St. Louis

because she couldn’t stand the idea of a big city and being around all

the traffic and people. I had not seen her more than two or three times

in my entire life, which was fine with me. She lived in a nasty old

trailer on some back road in the sticks. I didn’t like visiting because it

was filthier than our apartment at Pruitt Igo, and she always got in a

fight with Mable-bitch. She would also slap the hell out of me, sometimes

right out of the blue, just because she felt like it.

I stopped asking about my father. Mable-bitch would just say, “I

fucked a lot of men. How am I supposed to know?”

I rarely said anything back to her. I was too scared to say the wrong

thing when I was little because it might make her rage. She would

scream, call me terrible names, throw things, or pick up whatever was

near and hit me with it. So, I didn’t say much to her at all. You might

think I would become beaten down and timid. Instead, I built my

own rage that could stand up to just about anyone or anything. I built

a blaze of burning fury around my tender heart that almost anyone

could fall victim to, even for the slightest thing. I could cuss as big as

she could, like a tobacco-chewing truck driver, before I was eight years

old. She taught me well. As I got older, I gave the rage right back to

her claws and teeth, but when I was little, I kept my mouth shut most

of the time because she could still hurt me.

After standing at my doorway for several minutes, glaring at me,

she suddenly noticed the five-dollar bill on the dresser. She crossed to

it, snatched it from the dresser top, and screamed, “Where the hell did

you get this? What the fuck! Are you stealing my fucking money?”

“Mike,” I said quickly. “This guy named Mike said to give it to

you—for services rendered.”

“Mike?” She smirked as though not initially remembering who he

was. “Oh … oh, yeah … told him he could fuck me for twenty bucks

and a hit of dope. Lying mother fucker! Bastard stiffed me … in more

ways than one.” She giggled a little, apparently thinking that she had

made a joke. “Fucker comes around again, see what he ain’t—gonna—

get!” She folded the five-dollar bill lengthwise over her middle finger

and waved it around her crotch like a magic wand. Then, she shoved it

in her blouse pocket and said, “You hungry?”

I nodded. The truth is, I had not eaten all day. Lots of times when

she was stoned, I could easily go the whole day without eating anything

unless I snuck out and went up the hall to Miss Mattie or I had

food stashed somewhere. Miss Mattie would always feed me, but my so-called

mother didn’t like for me to go up there. I think she might have

been suspicious of Miss Mattie. She might have been afraid that Miss

Mattie had reported her to protective services before, and maybe she did,

but Miss Mattie also saved both our asses on multiple occasions, mainly

by feeding us. Who knows if she turned my so-called mother in? Still,

there had been so many times that child protective services should have

taken me out of there but didn’t. When they finally did, it was too late to

have prevented the toxic effects that would haunt me for life.

“Come on.” She said.

She turned, headed toward the kitchen, and I followed. We had a

little galley kitchen with crappy cheap appliances. She didn’t actually

cook. So, the oven was most often used to store things. Sometimes,

she would pull all that stuff out and bake something, but most of the

time, it was just another space to stuff crap or hide drugs. We used the

burners on top of the stove to heat canned soup sometimes, and if her

fortune were to shine on me, she would scramble some eggs. Most of

the time, I just got bologna or hot dogs eaten cold from the refrigerator,

if there were any. If I was lucky, I might find some bread. I learned

to eat it, mold and all, rather than letting it go to waste. I didn’t go

to my stash unless I knew she would be asleep, away, passed out, or I

couldn’t get something from Miss Mattie.

She went to the kitchen and began digging through cabinets. Some

cabinet doors had been ripped off the hinges, and all the cabinets were

past due for a coat of paint. Roaches scrambled. She pulled out half a

bag of macaroni, threw it on the counter, and went to the refrigerator.

“We ain’t got shit!” she exclaimed as the refrigerator light spread an

alien glow onto her face.

She grabbed a bottle of catchup and a bottle of mustard from inside

the refrigerator door. One slimy hotdog was left, and it was way past

time to throw it out. She pulled that out and threw it on the counter

as well. Then she put a pan of water to boil and threw the macaroni

in. She squirted catchup and mustard into the bottom of another pan,

tossed on black pepper and salt, and mixed in water. She cut the hotdog

into little pieces and threw that in, too. After the macaroni had

cooked, she drained the hot water into the sink using a pan lid to hold

the pasta. She picked up the little pieces of macaroni that fell into the

sink and threw those back into the pan. Then she dumped the ketchup,

mustard, and hotdog mix on top of the macaroni and stirred it in the

pan. She put some of it into a little bowl and handed it to me with a

spoon and a glass of water.

“There you go—enjoy,” she said as though she had just made a fivestar

dinner.

I took it back to my room and sat on the floor to eat. She grabbed

what was left in the pan and carried it to the beat-up couch in the

living room. I heard her flip on the TV and twist the knob, trying to

find a channel. What came out of our old television, with the crappy

rabbit ear antenna, was often more static than entertainment. Even

the wads of foil wrapped around the rabbit ears didn’t help much, but

she watched it anyway. She watched it spellbound, especially when

stoned. Sometimes, she would smoke a joint while she watched television.

I guess it made the static more entertaining. One night, I saw her

smoking a joint, gazing at the smoke rising off the tip. She watched it

like it was the most fascinating thing on earth. Then, as if talking to

some unknown entity or apparition in the empty room, she said, “You

ever notice there is no edge to smoke?” Her eyes rolled around the

smoke patterns as they rose and dissipated into the room. “There ain’t

no edge. You can’t ever tell where the air begins and the smoke ends.

Smoke or air, air or smoke? You can’t tell.”

When I finished my little bowl of macaroni, I took the dish

back to the kitchen and set it in the sink, which I could barely

reach. Then I returned to the living room and asked, “Can I go see

Miss Mattie?”

She looked around the room for the clock that had fallen off the

wall. “What the fuck time is it?” she asked.

When she realized the clock was lying on the floor with the battery

popped out, she exclaimed, “Fuck!” Then she got up and went to her

bedroom to look at her alarm clock, plugged in, and set on the window

sill. She only needed an alarm to get me up and ready for school, but

even with that, she overslept more often than not.

“2:42?” I heard her say. “Fuck! It’s dark outside. Baby, Miss Mattie

is gonna be asleep. It’s too late to be going down there.”

Disappointed, I turned back toward my room.

“You should be asleep too,” She said as she returned to the living

room. “Go get in bed.”

My bed was a few blankets folded on the floor with a sheet over

them and a rank and stinking worn-out pillow.

“I don’t feel sleepy,” I pleaded as I walked toward my room.

“I don’t fucking care,” she exclaimed. “Go lay down.”

“Okay,” I replied. “But I don’t think I can sleep.”

“If it wasn’t so fucking far, I’d call Jake and have him come get

you,” she smirked. “You could stay with him. You wanna go see Jake?”

Jake didn’t live at Pruitt Igoe but in an old house a few miles away.

My so-called mother didn’t have a car, and the phone was often cut off

because she didn’t pay the bill. Sometimes, she would hook up with

somebody who agreed to drop me off at Jake’s. Sometimes, Jake would

just show up and ask her if she needed him to babysit me for a while.

Sometimes, she would borrow somebody’s car or call Jake if she had

remembered to pay the bill. She would get rid of me as often as she

could. Jake never hesitated. He was always happy to see me, but I had

good reason for never being happy to see him.

“NO!” I exclaimed

She knew I hated Jake and had to have known he did things to me,

but she didn’t care. He was some man she had befriended, probably

over a drug deal. He offered to babysit for her, and she didn’t want to

admit why this strange unmarried man would offer to take care of her

kid so often. He told her he loved children, but I doubt he ever told her

what he really meant by that.

I hated Jake. He was a skinny redneck with stingy thin mousy

brown hair and arms that looked too long for his body. He had a thin

nose and beady green eyes that sunk back into his skull like the eyes

of a demon peeking from inside. He was about the same age as my

so-called mother and only wanted to keep me because he wanted to

do things to me—things that sickened me. It still brings disgust to my

memory. He did things that hurt. He liked to hurt me.

When he brought me back home, my so-called mother never asked

why I had cuts, blisters, and bruises around my ass and between my

legs. She would smear a little salve on it and say, “Baby, you got to be

more careful.” She never questioned anything Jake did, and Jake was a

sick bastard, to say the least. It seemed like the more he hurt me, the

more he enjoyed it. He took pictures of me, too. Sometimes, he put the

camera on a tripod and took pictures of himself doing things to me.

Sometimes, he would take photos of me with other kids and make us

do things with each other. If I could have found a way to kill him, I

would have, but I was too little back then to accomplish something like

that. Sometimes, I wanted just as much to kill my so-called mother.

Thoughts of murder should not be in a child’s mind, but when you

grow up in torment, it can seem like your only option other than killing

yourself, and I thought of that, too.

There was this older black boy named Ronza from Pruitt Igoe, and

Jake made me do stuff with him, too. He was maybe about fourteen

or fifteen and much bigger than I was. I don’t know how Jake teamed

up with Ronza, but often, Ronza would be waiting for us in Jake’s car

when he picked me up. Ronza seemed to like it. He liked it as much or

more than Jake did, and then, if I weren’t very careful, Ronza would

corner me somewhere around Pruitt Igoe and do what he wanted.

I started hating Jake early on. I was about three or four years old

when my so-called mother started leaving me with him. It was convenient

for her. She didn’t have to deal with me. She could get rid of

me and do whatever she wanted. She didn’t care what Jake was doing.

Sometimes, she would leave me at his house for two or three days. It

never mattered to her as long as I was out of the way. At least the ugly

mother fucker fed me.

I was thinking about Jake and how much I hated him when my so-called

mother brought my attention back to the moment.

“I’m sure Jake would like to see you.” She grinned.

“I’m going to go lay down,” I said.

“Okay,” she teased, “but you know Jake is always open to taking

care of you.”

“I’m going to go lay down,” I said again. Then I went to my room

and curled up on the blankets. I stuffed the thin pillow under my head,

closed my eyes, and pretended to be exploring all the different rooms

in my princess castle. Soon, I fell asleep.

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