Darnella Ford

St. Martin's Griffin

My name is Symone. And more important than my name is my story and the unveiling of the Beast.
I was adopted.
My adoptive parents were the Hustons, a shameless family with a house at the top of the hill.
The Huston name was synonymous with class, power, and money. Ridge Huston specialized in international trade. He made money because he had money. He didn't work much, but he didn't have to, He owned everything and it worked for him.
Madeline was his wife but I referred to her as the "other hand" that dipped into the cash. She led a life of leisure with no grand responsibilities, unless someone counted the children she had borne him. And even those obligations were oftentimes dictated to working stiffs known as nannies.
The Hustons were one of Eden's most prominent and well respected families. They weren't respected because they were deserving of respect. They were respected because they had money.
Big difference.
Ridge and Madeline adopted me when I was nine. And that was the turning point of my life. They rescued me from the inner city of Dorchester, Massachusetts, and swept me away to Michigan's most pretentious community of Eden.
Eden was an asymmetric paradise and just because it was upscale didn't mean it was also upstanding. The hillside homes hung million-dollar price tags off their front doors.
It was prestigious and downright uppity.
In that city, even dog shit could be packaged and sold as a souvenir. But only if the shit belonged to an Eden household pet. And everybody knew that an animal residing in Eden was worth more than a human living in the city.
The life the Hustons introduced me to was much different than the one I knew so intimately as a child.
In Dorchester, I had slept on a pee-stained cot in a single-room dump. We were economically challenged. Translation: dirt-poor.
We had been strangers to the conveniences of the telephone, heated water, or an abundant food supply.
We had eaten toasted bread for breakfast, plain bread for lunch, and cheese bread for dinner.
In the ghetto, tap water was an all-you-could-drink commodity. The only catch: Your teeth would turn yellow if you drank too much.
Every month was a hustle just to pay rent. I worried that if it wasn't paid by the fifteenth, we'd be out bargaining with the bum on the corner, trading a slice of cheese bread for deluxe accommodations in one of his finest cardboard boxes.
Did I neglect to mention Dolores?
She was a chemically imbalanced, suicidal, self-destructive, neurotic, alcoholic drug addict. But I gently swept those micro-- character flaws under a rug. I probably did it because her heart was made of pure, bona fide gold and her soul and spirit were free. They were so free, in fact, that at times they blew around recklessly.
Dolores could light up a room with her magic or weaken an explosive situation with a kind word. She always knew the right thing to say, the right thing to do. She was filled with song most days and walked around singing the only tune she had ever learned the words to ...
This little light of mine.
I'm gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine.
I'm going to let it shine ...
I used to hear Dolores sing that song in my sleep. She had so much charisma she should have been a movie star. Dorothy Dandridge didn't have a thing on Dolores, except a contract and some cash.
When Dolores entered a room the place lit up like an electric parade. She commanded the attention of everyone because she was the extraction of perfection. Beautiful like black onyx and raw like black coal. Illuminating like a black sky filled with brilliant stars. And mysterious like perishing meteors that evaporated before they could even hit the ground. But more than what she was or what she wasn't, she was special because she was Mama.
That's not to say that Dolores wasn't foul. She had some nasty habits.
They all demanded something of her and one by one they took their toll. Over the years, I watched Dolores suffer and knew she was intimate with devastation, struggle, and crippling disappointment.
But it never changed how I looked at her. Sometimes she was high, other times she was drunk, but she was always Mama. My beautiful, black, Nubian, African queen.
We lived together for years, sharing everything from one toothbrush to a pee-stained cot with a hole in the middle.
The kitchen was a breeding center for roaches and members of the rodent family. At the breakfast table, it was best to cover your bread with your hand between bites. If you forgot, pieces of the ceiling would crash down and stab the bread to death.
In the bathroom you had to shower quick. The temperature outdoors used to hold steady at nineteen degrees and heated water belonged only to those who could afford their bill at the end of the month.
The cold, nasty water brought with it ice and sometimes sewage. The faucet had to be turned on with pliers because the handles broke years ago. In other words, it was no Taj Mahal, but it was home.
Sometimes I'd get a wild hair up my butt and complain about the accommodations.
I'd get sick of showering in filthy subzero water. My hands cracked and bled from the struggle to turn the water on and turn the water off.
I'd get tired of spitting out pieces of the ceiling that I accidentally bit into when I ate my toast.
I hated playing "dodge the defiant roaches" every time I needed something from the kitchen.
I hated sharing a toothbrush with Mama.
I hated getting stuck in the cot's giant hole and sometimes falling through to the floor.
However, that's not to say that there were no joys. There was joy.
I had been the proud owner of two pets I inherited from the landlord. They were fat rats with long, spiraling tails. One rat was an albino with pink eyes and the other black as tar with eyes dark as night.
I named the rats Honkee Honkee and Niggah Niggah. They'd curl up beside me at night, one at my head, the other at my feet. The rats were my friends. So naturally, you will understand my devastation when exterminators came out, sneaked into our apartment, went behind my back, and set up my playmates.
One night while sleeping I heard a metal rattrap snap and woke only to find Honkee Honkee twisted in the contraption, rolling violently through the kitchen cabinet, fighting death till he finally collapsed.
I pronounced him dead on the spot, gently closed his beady eyes and labeled it another ghetto tragedy: Honkee Honkee. Seven months old. Dead of a broken neck.
Shortly afterward, Niggah Niggah packed up and moved out. I never heard from him again after that night. But every time I saw a black rat on the street, I would stare into its dark eyes and call out in a hollow voice, "Niggah Niggah, is that you?"
But I never found him.
Losing Honkee Honkee and Niggah Niggah was a major loss in my life at that time. But little did I know that this was only the beginning of a life that would run rampant with loss.
As a kid growing up, I didn't mind living with Dolores. She was a lot of fun when she was sober. But the last time I saw her sober was when I was about three years old. After that, almost every night Dolores was incapacitated. She'd pass out naked on the cot with her tongue sticking out and legs gapped open. Sometimes she'd get so high she wouldn't wake up for days. Why do you think the cot had so many pee-stains?
Dolores came from a family of dirt-poor niggers straight off the plantation. She ran away from home when she was fourteen and moved to the land of golden opportunity, the Dorchester projects.
She worked a dozen jobs before landing something permanent. She slaved at a factory, a sewage treatment plant, a plumbing establishment, a lumber yard, a grocery store, beauty shop, and finally at an after-hours gambling joint. And it was at this gambling establishment that Dolores finally started making some money.
She'd been broke for so long that when she finally came up on some cash, she went buck-wild. She was obsessed by it all, the money, the men, and the drugs.
It was easy for Dolores to make money selling herself. She was fine and all of her parts were in the right place. Her hips curved, her butt was round, her breasts were pleasing to the eye, and her nipples stood at attention all the time. She had big brown eyes and a sparkling smile (at least that's what her pictures looked like).
To be honest, I don't remember the woman in the picture. When I was a little kid, Dolores was strung out on heroin. She smoked it. Shot it. Sniffed it. And would have swam in the shit if she could've fit her big ass into the little pouch of white powder.
Dolores was gentle by nature, but the drugs awakened a demonwithin. And when she lost the high, she was a woman gone mad and everything and everyone that stood between her and the next hit was going straight to hell.
I always knew when Dolores was going to lose it. She'd sweat so hard her clothes would wring with salty perspiration. After the wetness came convulsions. And sometimes her body's unannounced jerking "motions" put her at great risk of hurting herself. Once she almost bit off her tongue and another time she knocked herself out cold when she threw herself against a wall.
I would hide in the closet and watch Dolores through termite-eaten walls. And what I saw was never pretty, and more difficult to translate on paper. Her body slammed against walls without mercy or compassion. She would stand soaked in sweat and sometimes blood. Her hair would dance on end as her clothes hung from her frame. Her huge, sagging breasts would escape from her bra and take turns smacking her in the face.
Dolores had rolled around the room on the floor violently. I witnessed her body literally bend in two from the pain, which continued until she found the last vein in her arm to blow out with the needle. Every time she stabbed herself with the filthy needle, she prayed her vein had enough staying power, so as not to collapse in the middle of the rush.
Most days, her prayers went unanswered and the vein would blow out. I watched as Dolores literally beat her arm black and blue trying to find a vein that was strong enough to take the shot.
The scene was traumatic only until Dolores found the vein, and then, just like magic, the ghosts would stop their assault, the room would spin to calmness, Dolores would take a deep breath, and it would all stop. And then she'd start singing to the Lord right in the middle of shooting up, getting high.
This little light of mine.
I'm gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine.
I'm going to let it shine ...
Maybe she felt closer to God flying on a high. Or it could be the drug put a little distance between her and the demons.
This drama played out every day in my house. And when it was all said and done, the place would be destroyed.
She would rip down curtains, break dishes, destroy bedsheets, and vomit without warning.
That was probably the biggest problem Dolores faced when she didn't get the drug on time: vomiting.
Upchucks for hours. One time Dolores threw up so long and hard she ruptured blood vessels in her eyes, leaving them bloodred for days.
I always kept a bucket by the bed because I never knew when to expect regurgitation. The only trick was to get Dolores to throw up inside the bucket instead of on the floor.
On the good days, it went in the bucket. On the mediocre days, it went on the floor. And on the bad days, it went on me.
As a child I did not find this repulsive. Nor did I find it unusual or disturbing. I was a kid. Dolores was my mother. Heroin was my stepfather. I just had a stepfather who mistreated my mother and made both of our lives a living hell.
RISING. Copyright © 2003 by Darnelle Ford. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y 10010.