By La’Kendrick Thompson
* This is a portion of a much larger body of work titled “Black in America,” which is a memoir based on critical moments in my life. Each chapter has a separate story from the rest, but in the end they all come together to define what it is like to be black in America.
There wasn’t much I did as a kid to anger my mother, but one incident in particular had her worried sick and infuriated. I was seven years old at the time, too young to focus on anything other than junk food, playing, and more junk food. We lived on North Greenwood Avenue in Kankakee, Illinois, and I loved staying there for many reasons. There was Mr. Ben’s grocery next door, and next door to the grocery store was a house filled with children I played with. We played everything from hop scotch, tag, red light-green light, to kick-ball. Directly across the street from us was a house with two more kids I played with daily. Sometimes they came across the street to join everyone and sometimes I went across the street to play with them.
We lived in a two level apartment, on the upper level, and on the lower level was an older black man by the name of Jim Phifer. When I first met Jim, he had physical features that were scary. He was tall and his skin was like a dark olive green. He always wore shades, but the first time I saw him without them, his eyes were huge, with red spots in his iris. His hair was grey, like salt and pepper mixed, and he always wore his work clothes: a blue hat, dark blue slacks, black boots, and a light blue collared shirt. The shirt had a name tag on it that read “Phifer,” and he kept a pack of Newport 100’s inside his shirt pocket. I never knew what his occupation was but he always had money. On top of keeping a bank roll he had a giving spirit. I’d always ask him for a dollar or some pocket change and each time he’d give me more than I asked for.
Afterwards, I’d race next door to Mr. Ben’s to spend it all on junk food. I loved Mr.Ben’s store but he was a mean old man, the complete opposite of Mr. Phifer. He was also tall, but kept his salt n’ pepper beard and goatee well groomed. He kept his hair cut low with a receding hairline with a pair of glasses and an apron that made him look professional, but like a butcher at the same time. Each time I walked up to the counter I looked at his hands. I was mesmerized by how big and rough they looked. They were always ashy and I wondered why he didn’t lotion them, but now I realize they were ashy because he washed his hands before cutting meat on a slicer for his customers. He always licked the tips of his fingers to separate the brown paper bags he placed the items in, and every now and then he’d cut his eyes up at me as if he had a thought he wished not to verbalize. Every now and then I’d come in and he’d be stacking items on the shelves and he’d always look down at me in disgust before slowly walking down a small ladder and behind the counter. One day I walked in and I was traumatized after watching him trap a small mouse under his brown loafers, before stomping it, and tossing it out the door. He washed his hands and continued working as if nothing happened, but to me I’d just witnessed a murder.
My mother, who was as beautiful as any woman I’d ever seen, was 5’2, 120 pounds, with a milk chocolate complexion, and a smile that could warm the coldest heart. She was in her mid-twenties and not in a committed relationship, but I remember a man named Ron who would always come around, smiling and grinning in her face. He was a friendly guy, and I could tell he loved my mother. He was light skinned, with freckles in his face which was odd for a black guy to me, but he also had curly hair. He was also goofy as hell, too. He was always laughing and cracking jokes and I frowned at the sight of the white stuff around the edges of his lips. He drove a nice car which symbolized success in the hood, but I don’t know what he did for a living.
There was also another guy named Matt who kept hitting on her every chance he’d get. He was very persistent, and it seemed like he followed us everywhere! No matter where we’d go he’d appear, making his advances. He was crazy to me. He’d sing songs all loud in public and embarrass my mom. She laughed and I could tell she liked it, but it was weird to me. He was tall, muscular, dark skinned, bald headed, and he wore glasses. Unlike Ron, Matt always played with me when we’d see him. He’d wrestle with me and pretend to be wrestlers like Hulk Hogan. Guess he figured I was the key to my mother’s heart, so he had to win me over. For the most part he did a great job.
Even as a kid I realized things would be bad if Matt and Ron crossed paths, but for a while they didn’t. I don’t know why my mother entertained the both of them, but from what I observed she enjoyed the attention. When the two men finally met, Ron threatened Matt and warned him to stay away from my mother, “or else.” I remember my little heart pounding like a beating drum, anticipating the first blow, but nothing happened. Of course Matt didn’t listen; in fact he came around even more after words were exchanged.
It was a Friday night and my mother was getting dressed and dancing around the house to Johnny Kemp’s “Just got Paid.” Ron arrived to pick her up, and the plan was for me to go downstairs to Mr. Phifer’s house until she returned from her night of partying, but before they could leave there was a knock at the door as if someone was pissed. My mom demanded that I go to my room immediately and I acted accordingly. The apartment was so small I could still hear everything and by cracking my bedroom door I could see as well. The person on the other side of the door was Matt. I stuck my head out the doorway to see what was happening and in a loud vicious tone I heard Ron say, “I thought I told you to stay the fuck away from here!”
I’d never heard Ron get loud, so I knew he was fuming. My mom tried to stand in between the two of them, but she was too small to play referee. The two men started tussling and punching one another until they made it out to the patio, which was highly elevated from the ground with a long flight of stairs from the ground up. After a few minutes of brawling, they fell over the balcony with Matt landing on top of Ron. By then I was standing on the patio looking down. My mother was screaming and ordered me back to my room, but I didn’t listen. I had to see the aftermath. Did they die, I wondered? Matt was able to get up and brush himself off, but Ron remained on the ground, still conscious, but unable to move. I thought he was dead, so I sobbed. The cops came and arrested Matt, and Ron was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. The next time I saw him he had a cast on one arm, a leg, his neck, and he was walking on crutches. I guess you can say Matt won the girl, because I started seeing more of him and less of Ron, till eventually Ron disappeared permanently. I liked Matt, but there was one incident in particular that made me wish he went away for good.
The drama came one September evening at the beginning of the school year. My mom worked days and I was told to go to Mr. Phifer’s apartment until she arrived. It was hot and muggy that day, as I walked through the rugged alley with my backpack on, look- ing at the ground which was filled with everything from broken glass, clothing items, beer cans, beer, and whiskey bottles, kicking rocks along the way. Our back yard was to the right of the alley way, and it had a table and lawn chairs where Mr. Phifer and his friends laughed and drank almost daily.
I’d only made it a few steps in the yard when a red Toyota Camry stopped in the alley. I turned back after I heard a voice call my name and it was Matt in the passenger seat with another man in the driver’s seat. Matt asked me to take a ride with him, and my first thought was to go inside, but then I thought, he’s my mother’s boyfriend, she wouldn’t have a problem with me riding with him. So I hopped in the back seat, not knowing what our destination was, or without considering the fact that my mother would have no idea where I was or who I was with when she came home from work.
We went to several stores and I sat in the car with the creepy dude who had a lazy eye, while Matt went inside. He would come out of each store and pull items out that were stuffed in his jeans. He’d try to crack jokes to distract me as if I didn’t realize what he was doing.
After all the stealing was over, we went to a couple houses that it took him forever to come out of. I was really starting to worry, and I wanted to cry, because I realized my mother was worried about me at this point. Four hours later, we pulled back into the now dark alley way with several adults scattered throughout the area. It was obvious that everyone was looking for me. I got out of the car and my mom raced towards the vehicle with tears in her eyes. She grabbed me by my arm, while picking a small branch off the ground, and struck me repeatedly.
“Where in the fuck have you been!” she yelled. Matt got out of the car, attempting to explain, and she struck him in the face repeatedly. I cried, but I knew I’d gotten exactly what I deserved. I’d driven my mother to the point of insanity and despite my careless- ness, she sat me down and explained why my actions were wrong. “If I don’t tell you it’s okay to go with someone, I don’t care who they are, it’s not okay,” she cried.
I learned a valuable lesson that day. It was one I’d take with me for the remainder of my childhood. Do exactly what my mother says, because your mother knows best. It also made me realize how much she loved me, and I didn’t want to hurt her again.