Aisha stood in the middle of her room holding the letter, spacing out. She could hear her mother Louise laughing at something on television, no doubt stretched out on her bed as usual. It seemed like ages ago that her mother worked in a laundromat, washing and folding clothes. Something else seemed like ages ago too. Aisha remembered dissin' her best friend Raven, also a dropout and teen mother, for wanting to make something of herself. She'd advised Raven to "chill," like she was doing, and just let the system take care of her. Now Raven's words came back like an ice cube dropped down her blouse. "I don't want to be like you. Anyway, nowadays they kick you off welfare after five years. So you won't be chillin' for long."
Two years later Raven was a sophomore in college engaged to her son's father, and Aisha was a nineteen-year-old mother of two holding a "60-Day Notice of Benefits Termination."Aisha's daughter, Starlett, had just turned four, and little Ty was barely two. Her mother Louise had warned her about making babies "with nothing coming in," and her so-called man Kevin seemed to think promises bought food and clothes for their kids. Her part of the rent was due at the end of the month, and the last thing Aisha wanted to hear about was her workfare options--scrubbing graffiti off city-owned property, working with the city's Clean Sweep Team, or joining the Zero-Tolerance Subway Youth Patrol--all for some piddling, temporary "transition" allowance. Raven's words came back again: "They kick you off welfare after five years." What was she going to do? With no diploma, no skills, and two kids, Aisha Ingram's chilled life had suddenly gotten a little too chilly.
Unlike her friends who had some kind of reason to leave school--usually pregnancy for the girls and prison for the boys--Aisha had cut short her education out of simple boredom. "I woulda bailed outta kinnygarden if they ain't had them def cookies," she liked to joke. As for one day maybe going back to school, she'd say, "Ain't took to it then, cain't take to it now."
Before motherhood, Aisha's life was all about being out. Chilling out, hanging out, making out, or just bugging out. And Kevin Vinker, a long-waisted mama's boy with big eyes and hair cut in a fade, was always at her side. Aisha lay back on her queen-size bed and remembered the good ol' days with Kevin, before Starlett and Ty came on the scene.
"Wassup, Miss Ingram. Ai home? We s'pose to be going to Coney Island." Kevin's untied burgundy sneakers were the same color as his loose-fitting jeans and backward cap, gifts from his mother, a subway station supervisor.
Aisha's mother, whose head reached the boy's shoulder, was dressed for work in a grayish smock adorned with rows of washed-out flowers and an assortment of stains. She squinted to bring Kevin into focus, a beer already in her hand.
"Coney Island?! She too sick to go to school, but she can go running way 'cross Brooklyn to some Coney Island? That girl as useless as her bonehead father, and I done washed my hands of her mess. And what about you, playing hooky all the time like there no tomorrow. Y'all think you know better than grown folks, but mark my words, you gonna end up just like me, making next to nothing in some oven-hot laundrymat washing folk's stank drawers."
Stank drawers. Kevin laughed hard at that one. Miss Ingram was a trip. And mad tipsy that early.
"Now move your narrow behind out my way, before you make me late to the office. That girl's back there in her room with a hot-water bottle, propped on her head like she fooling somebody. I wasn't born yesterday." She hollered down the hallway, "And no, I can't loan nobody a dime!" and hustled off down the stairs mumbling, "They need to fix these broke-down elevators, like folk ain't got nothing better to do with they legs than run up and down steps."
One after the other, Louise had had three children withher husband Louis, all of them, in her words, "good-for-nothings who can't send a dime to they mama." They were all grown when Aisha arrived, an unwelcome surprise. Louis wasn't any happier about the news and immediately announced that he was "done with being the mule" and was going to enjoy what was left of his life--alone. Soon after his wife got back from the hospital, he called for a gypsy cab to come get him and climbed in with four large trash bags stuffed with his belongings. For Louise and her new baby girl he left an "only for emergency" phone number scribbled on a brown scrap torn from a grocery store paper bag. That's when Louise began accepting Miss Barry's invitations to "come by and have a drink with a lonely old lady," and neighbors began whispering about how the Ingram family was going downhill. The Ingrams were actually two families: the one Aisha grew up in as an only child wondering where everybody went, with a mother who was often ill, cranky, or plain drunk, and the one her sister and twin brothers had been raised in by a playful mother and a hardworking father.
"Be careful at the fourth floor, Miss Ingram!" called Kevin behind her. "Somebody peed, and it's all wet." Still chuckling, he closed the apartment door behind him and hurried down the hallway to his girlfriend's room.