On the Move
The water fountain rose above me. I eyed it and in one swift move hoisted myself up on the stone ledge, then let my toes dangle until I felt the smooth, cool pedal. Arms trembling, I gulped water and scrubbed the stray drops into my face.
Mama wasn’t at the park. She wasn’t at the light blue row house with the peeling paint where she’d been hanging out the night before. And she wasn’t at the big tree on Riggs Avenue either. I’d woken up alone curled between a tree’s roots early that morning after having fallen asleep listening to Mama laughing with Rocksey as they passed a brown bag between them.
My stomach growled. The last thing I’d eaten was half an egg sandwich yesterday morning when I had found Mama on the marble steps in front of a gray-painted brick building with boarded-up windows.
I started up Carrollton Avenue. Maybe Mama would be looking for me at Grandma Bernice’s. In the morning we were like a magnet to a refrigerator. We found each other, always.
From an open window, the smell of bacon hit me. I eyed the trash basket. No one was looking, so I scanned the nest of bags and cups and greasy wrappers. Last week I’d found a box of chicken wings with the wing tips fully intact and I’d sucked the meat off each of those bones until they were clean. But on this morning, I found something better beside the basket, a coin. And then another! I snatched them up and tucked them deep in my pocket where I had a few others. Maybe there’d be chicken gizzards today.
I heaved open the door to the corner store. A blast of cool air hit me, and I was drawn in by the glitter of candy stacked in the plexiglass treasure box, the cashier towering over it.
He leaned over the counter. “Can I help you?” I knew enough to understand that he was really asking, Do you have money?
“Have you seen my mom?”
Grandma Bernice, my mom’s birth mother, lived down the block from Grandma Emma, my dad’s mom. I walked past the big black fire escape and the little shoe store and decided to knock on Grandma Emma’s door. Maybe my cousins would be heading to the playground in the lot behind Grandma’s place.
Aunt Thumberlina answered the door.
“Have you seen my mom?”
“Naw, Ricky. She ain’t here.”
I hovered in the door, craning my neck to see if my baby uncle Pedro—Grandma Emma had him real old and he was younger than me—was playing inside, but she shooed me away. “Boy, you smell. Get on out of here.”
My uncles Glen and James, aka Goo Goo, were in the alley, and my cousin Jeffrey was laughing and yelling as he ran ahead of them into the playground behind Grandma’s house.
“Hey!” I called happily.
Goo Goo turned around and sang out, “Snotty nose, stinky clothes. Go find your mother.”
Grandma Emma stuck her head out the door and hollered, “Leave that boy alone, or I’ll hit you upside the head.”
I waved to her as I started to chase Jeffrey down the street. But the neighbor lady marched down the white steps. “Come on over here and let me wipe your nose.”
She launched a tissue attack as I tried to squirm free. “Sit still,” she said.
“It’s fine. It’s fine,” I said, pushing her hand away.
By the time she was satisfied, Jeffrey was out of sight and my stomach was rumbling. I made my way to Bernice’s; Mama wasn’t there either so I headed back toward the tree.
There were a few men playing dominoes at a fold-up card table set up in the cool shade of the big branches. The bones clacked on the plastic. A small group was gathering, but Mama still wasn’t there.
I started hunting for coins. At night, people were always hanging out here—drinking, smoking, getting high, then tripping, falling, and dropping money. Tink. Clink. Clink.
I lay on the drainage grate and swooped my arm into the dark hole, brushing against cold sludge. Nothing. Some kids would crawl into the drain, but I was too scared. My luck came from the coins that hadn’t been washed down or what I found in the gutters. As I walked along, I bulldozed my big toe through the gutters—pushing aside leaves, a cherry-red soda can, a slimy scrap of wax paper—and then: the silver shimmer of a coin. My stomach rumbled again.
On Riggs I nearly smacked into the man with the jacked face. The skin stretched over his eye, nose, and cheek was weirdly shiny and smooth. It folded and bunched like the melted cheese that had hardened on day-old pizza. My heart skittered.
I darted down the block, dodging traffic on Fremont Avenue, and arrived at the community center, where they sometimes gave away free box lunches that had a piece of fruit, a bologna and cheese sandwich, milk, and juice. But no one was there today and I was pretty sure I had gizzard money, so I climbed through the hole in the fence. There, its high red walls looming above me, was Lafayette Market.
There were a few horses tied up outside. Sometimes I’d see them on the streets of Sandtown, pulling the carts as tall Black men sat up front calling out “Watermeloooon” or “Get your crabs.” It was a Baltimore thing. Inside Lafayette Market, a swarm of people moved from one stand to the next. There was a horse cart with a mound of watermelon, another full of pints of strawberries, bright red and sweet-smelling. One cart was painted red and filled with buckets of crabs, their blue and red claws scrabbling up the sides.
I was like an ant underfoot. Invisible. A hip knocked into me and I stumbled into some lady’s bag of groceries. I looked up to see who I’d hit and when I looked down again, CRASH, I bumped into a man heaving a big box. I lifted my chin, trying to figure out where I was. I spun in a circle—where was the chicken stall? All I saw were legs and bags bulging with food, and hands. Hands holding car keys and grocery bags, hands that were smooth and brown with brightly painted nails, or wrinkled and ashy. Hunger poked at me. Don’t get lost today. I found the side door I’d come through and closed my eyes. All I had to do was walk straight, go right, then straight, and then BOOM: chicken.
I opened my eyes and saw a pigeon stutter from one rafter to the next. Refocusing on the task at hand, I set out. Straight. Right. Straight. I dodged legs and strollers with kids bigger than me.
At the chicken booth, I stood on the gray cement looking up, trying to stretch myself taller. The lady working came out from behind the counter and put her hands on her knees. “Hey, kid.”
I held out my palm displaying the jumble of coins. She pecked about until only a few blackened pennies were left. She didn’t ask me what I wanted. I’m pretty sure the money did the ordering, but I never left without chicken. She came back with a bag full of fried chicken gizzards. Hot. Crunchy. Salt, pepper, ketchup on the tongue.
* * *
I was ready to play. Leaving the market, I sidestepped a pile of horse droppings and strolled to the playground behind Grandma Emma’s, slowly chewing a gizzard.
“Ricky’s it!” Jeffrey yelled as I chased after them, my little legs churning through the grass and my hands still clutching the bag, grease spots spreading along the bottom and sides where my fingers met the warm meat.
I tagged Rodney, who lived on the block between my two grandmothers, and he smiled shyly. His mom was always offering me sandwiches and he had her sweet disposition.
“Why you carrying that chicken around, Ricky?” baby uncle Pedro asked.
I shrugged. But there was no way I was setting that bag down. The chicken stayed with me. It stayed with me when I ran to base. It stayed with me when I sat on the swings. It stayed with me when I went back to Lafayette Park—aka the Square.
There was Mama. She was tall. Her big curls made her even taller. I slipped onto the bench beside her and handed over the greasy bag, grinning. She eyed me suspiciously.
“Who gave you that?”
“How’d you find that?”
“I bought it.”
“Where’d you get the money? You begging?”
“No. I found it.”
Mama knew I wouldn’t lie. She dipped her fingers into the bag and closed her eyes as she chewed.
Staring up at the clouds, I started thinking about my name. Longing for something different, after a while I said, “I wish my name was Anthony.”
“Well, you know your name is Anthony. Antoine is a form of Anthony. Richard Antoine White is your name.” And then she kissed me on the forehead and said, “I love you, baby.” She handed me the bag, but I was full, so I just tucked a piece of chicken under my tongue in case there wasn’t food later.
From that day on I always announced my full name: Richard Antoine White.
* * *
Mama and I walked everywhere. If we needed to go to the east side of town, we walked. If we wanted to go to the west side of town, we walked. Walking with Mama was halfway between being dragged across town and flying. Sometimes I’d imagine myself as Road Runner, my legs moving so fast they were invisible.
When Mama told me, “Rocksey said we could stay at her house,” we walked fast, occasionally breaking into trots and full-on runs so awkward that I ended up stumbling on the cracked sidewalk.
“Come on, boy. Come on, boy. Let’s go.”
We went, with a trash bag bouncing over Mama’s shoulder.
Rocksey and Mama were best friends. They would sit around playing cards or watching their stories—The Young and the Restless or Days of Our Lives—on the TV with the hanger perched on top. They passed a green pack of Kool 100s between them until the air was thick and gray and one of them said, “Let’s go get a hit.” A hit meant they were going to the big tree to get a swig from the bag. Someone under the tree always had a brown paper bag with the tip of a bottle poking out—Thunderbird or Mad Dog 20/20.
My mom and Rocksey had been pregnant at the same time and she had a daughter, Danielle, whom I called Hot Chicken. She had a lot of toys. While Mom and Rocksey watched their stories, I played. Hot Chicken had a water toy with a transparent tank and two white buttons that you pushed to squirt the rings up over the poles. I shook it. How are the rings in the water? I turned the whole thing upside down. I pushed the buttons and tiny bubbles emerged. How does it work? I tugged at the blue top. It didn’t come off. I pried at the blue base. It didn’t budge. I shook and pushed that plastic until I felt it give, and a flood of water washed the bright little rings out onto the vinyl floor.
Rocksey was not happy.
She was even less happy when a couple weeks later a few dollars went missing. She and Mom had been drinking all afternoon and the big ashtray sat between them with a gang of butts that had been smoked down to the filter and stubbed out. The pack of Kools was empty.
“I need a fug. I’m gonna run to the store.” Rocksey fumbled around on the table for her money.
“Ricky. You take that dollar that was sitting here,” she said, more accusation than question.
“Don’t lie to me. Did you take it?”
We went round in circles until Mama took up for me. “He wouldn’t lie. If he did take the money, he would tell you.”
“Then how’d he get those chicken wings?” Rocksey demanded.
“I found money.” I’d found enough to take to Lafayette Market. This time the smiling woman had taken all the coins in my hand and given me a box of chicken wings.
“Ricky wouldn’t take your money.”
“No. I know I left the dollars right here.”
Mama drew herself up to her full height. “I’m telling you, Ricky does not lie. If he did it he would say he did it.” Every word was a knife.
Rocksey cut her eyes at me but spoke to Mama, “Get your shit and get out.”
Mama shoved our stash of clothes into trash bags, and then we were on the move. One bag slung over her shoulder, the other slung over mine.
We half-flew down the block. My arm went tingly from the weight of the bag. I wanted to put it down for a minute but didn’t want Mama to get mad. I tried to shift the weight around to get the feeling back in my fingers. But after another minute I couldn’t, and the black plastic slipped from my grasp. Mama kept walking. I couldn’t heave the bag off the ground again so I started dragging it.
“Come on, boy!”
My yellow T-shirt poked out of a hole that had opened near the corner. I tried to force it back in and Mama spun on her heel and hit me upside the head. Tears stung my eyes. She grabbed my hand and I trailed behind her, the garbage bag trailing behind me.
“Just leave it. We gotta go,” Mom told me when I looked back, tears skimming my cheeks. I abandoned my bag of belongings.
“Come on!” But I wasn’t fast enough. “I said, come on, damn it,” she said like I wasn’t tough enough or strong enough.
“I’m trying,” I muttered, my jaw tight. I willed the tears to stop. We walked on.
By the time Rocksey found the money and realized I wasn’t lying, we were long gone.
Copyright © 2021 by Richard Antoine White