Every morning, I pass the same four dudes leaning against the brick wall in the alley. They’re always shooting the shit, talking about how their bones hurt, their girlfriends want them to be more serious, their bosses tell them to show up on time. They’ve stood there since I was a kid and my corner store trips were for push pops or Skittles. Now, I hit up the shop for Red Bulls or orange juice or Marlboro reds if I’m going out. In those early days, my dad told me, “Don’t be like Curly, or Flaco, or Smooth Drew or Dwayne. They ain’t got nothing to their names, just a bunch of sad ass complaints and child support receipts. You’re going to make something of yourself.”
I wasn’t sure if getting my automotive repair license from Mergantholer Vocational School was what he had in mind, but at graduation, he patted my head and half hugged me, and he’d never really done that before. It had been a long road—I’d moved high schools twice, flunked two grades. Now, motor oil is tattooed around my nails and burn marks run down my arms from changing the oil when an engine has just stopped running. But on Fridays, nothing looks better in the world than that check flapping in my hand.
Sometimes, like today, one of their babies’ mommas is chatting up one of the dudes about coming to see the kids or how she needs money for Pampers. This cool fall morning, it’s Lakeisha. She’s got long fingernails and tight booty shorts, and her cell phone is sticking part way out of her bra. I try not to look at her chest cause she’s bouncing a baby on her hip. I stop and say hey, mostly because she knows Bianca.
“What you sayin hi to me for?” Lakeisha says, laughing. “We know each other?”
“Yeah, you don’t remember?”
She shakes her head. “Uh uh. I would remember a scrawny-ass white boy like you, carrot top.” She peers closer. “Are you white though?”
I always get second glances. My neighborhood in East Baltimore is full of people like me—mixed breeds, people of all shades, “mailmans’ outcasts,” my dad calls them. You’d think people would get used to it by now. My dad is mixed, black and white, maybe some Indian. That’s why my skin is the color of Maxwell House with creamer. My eyes are light brown with green flecks like my dad, and my nose is real wide. But I can’t explain my red hair. When I ask him about my mom, he’ll only says that she dropped me off at his doorstep and said I was his. Whenever I’ve bugged him about it more, he says he doesn’t know anything else. I usually cover my hair up with a cap, but sometimes it sticks out. I guess that’s why Lakeisha noticed.
“Yeah, I’m a mutt, I guess,” I say.
She laughs. “What you got goin on?”
I lick my lips. “You friends with that Bianca girl, right?”
She cocks her head. “Yeah, what’s it to you?”
“You hanging with her tonight? I’ve been trying to hit her up.”
Curly comes out of the store, and me and the other dudes gotta pretend there’s something real interesting in the gravel besides cigarette butts and needle caps. Lakeisha starts ragging on him for drinking too much and not taking her out, all while the baby is wailing. Then Curly starts talking all soft, touching Lakeisha on the side of her hip, rubbing the baby’s tiny arm, when Lakeisha remembers I’m standing there. “Hey, knappy haired kid. I think her phone’s off right now,” she says. “But come round Scores tonight I bet she’ll be there.”
“Alright, cool, I’ll see you,” I say. I take a deep breath as I enter the store, buy my OJ, then walk up the street fast, shoving the bottle and my hands in my pockets. Bianca called me three days ago, sounding like she was holding in a scream. We’d been hooking up for a couple of months—I always think of her as my girl. The way she talked freaked me out. She said she needed money, fast. My mind felt like it was on speed, and I’d said, “You knocked up?” I wanted to take it back because she whimpered. It was mine, but she didn’t want to have it. She said it would change everything, and she just started at her job at the daycare center. I told her I thought she was right and I’d help pay for it and all that. But I couldn’t sleep that night and I had a dream where I was holding a smaller version of me’s hand, watching a white lady walk away from us looking over her shoulder.
At my house, my pops is up, drinking coffee in his work pants and undershirt. I call hey to him as I grab my car keys, and he shouts the same goodbye he’s said since I was 12—“Don’t be a menace.” Then, he adds, “Gio, remember, you got two weeks. There’s some stuff for you to look at before the move. I’ll put it in your room.”
“Yes sir,” I say. He’s got this idea about moving to Florida, and his deal was I could stay with him after graduation while I looked for my own place, but now it’s been two years. My pops has done good for himself, after all those garage jobs finally working for the city and getting retirement and all that. He’s always hated winter, and he says he feels the ice in his bones since he’s older and can’t do the bright lights and noise anymore. I want to stay here. I’ve saved up as much as I can, and every day, I go over my options. I could move in with my boys AJ and Tyrone, but they’re splitting a one bedroom with one of them sleeping in the living room.
I get in the car and ease down the driveway. This job is temporary, so I gotta get there on time. The garage is a half hour away, and on my drive, I watch the houses get bigger and older, with yards and flowers and well-trimmed lawns. Where my dad lives is a mass of brick row homes crushed together with awnings that were once white but now are gray with dirt. Our block, where we’ve lived since I was in middle school, looks like a mouth with busted teeth cause two houses are boarded up with the windows smashed. But the day he unlocked the front door for the first time, he couldn’t hide his smile. I don’t blame my dad for wanting something nicer. Though the town in Florida called Ocala is way smaller than Baltimore and isn’t on the beach, it’s still warmer and the brochures show a bunch of palm trees. The nicest thing about my hood is that if you stand at the top of the hill on our street you can see the port of Baltimore and watch the ships come in. That always gives me this hopeful feeling, like there’s something else out there and that makes up for having no trees or grass.
My job is on a side street and usually moms are dropping off their Range Rovers. When I pull into the lot, the older guys whistle. “Hey, look at little Armani with his pimpmobile,” shouts one. They ride on me because I drive a Saturn with rust eating out her metal like termites on wood, but I’m loyal—I pieced her together from scratch. They dog on me because of my name, too—it’s Giorgio, but most everyone calls me Gio. I laugh along as I take off my coat and zip up my coveralls.
Today the cold is setting in and it feels good to slide on the creeper under the hot cars. I think about Bianca and her soft skin and feeling up her titties but something catches in my throat. Then I think about my mom. She’s been in my head lately.
Six months ago, when my dad told me about Florida, I was worried about money. He’s got this thing about me being self-reliant, and he made it clear that moving with him wasn’t an option. It’s always been like he doesn’t need anybody else. The girlfriends he’s had never stuck around much, probably because they got tired of making him dinner with not a lot in return. I knew what he would say about lending me money. Tyrone tracked down his dad and got a couple geez for back child support, so I wondered about my mom.
My dad never said much. Once when I was little and we drove downtown, he pointed to a rundown old building with lots of curlicues made of concrete and said, “Your mom used to work there when it was a jewelry store.” Then he got the kind of quiet that let me know I shouldn’t ask more.
When I was 12, I asked about her again because I had this idea that I might run into her and not know who she was. He snapped, “Nah, Gio, she’s not from around here.”
Other times, he’d just say that she wasn’t responsible, didn’t take care of what was hers. I don’t even know if she’s from Baltimore, but Big George’s friend who works at the DMV could help me find her. Even if she didn’t have a lot of money, maybe she’d fork over enough for a security deposit. Seriously, that ain’t much to ask after all these years. I don’t even know if she knows my name. But every time I tell myself I’m gonna find her, I chicken out. So much would be different if she’d been around and my brain freaks out like it’s racing around a track.
My boss’ voice makes me jump. “Gio, get your ass out here.” He tells me to go to St. Mary’s, there’s some doctor whose car won’t start. “Take the truck,” he says, tossing me the keys. “And Gio…we’re gonna need you tomorrow, and next week, too. Maybe we can talk about you coming in regularly.”
On the highway, the big-ass white tow takes forever to accelerate, and just for fun, I roll down all the windows and blast 92Q—they’re playing old school Weezy. I imagine that in a couple years, if I’m still working at Big George’s, I’ll buy myself a place with a pool and a basketball hoop, get one of those tricked out F-150s. Maybe I’d drive to Florida, go to Miami, see my dad. That’s a ways off. Shit, I can’t buy alcohol for another year. Then I remember that baby bouncing on Lakeisha’s hip.
When I get home from work, I see the cardboard boxes on my bed. For a second, I think about not opening them, but I reach in one and pull out a piece of construction paper. It’s a drawing of me and my dad in front of my version of our old apartment on Dewey Street. Our hands too big for our bodies, and next to us is a lady with red hair and pink skin. Something way back in my brain remembers that this is what I imagined my mom would look like.
I dig through the rest of the box and find report cards and some papers from the time I had to go to juvi court. I still shake my head, remembering how I just went along when those stupid guys I hung with when I was 15, when they picked me up, one of them with a gun in his waistband. How I didn’t say nothing when told me to wait in the driver’s seat while they went into the H&H Mart and pull off real fast when they jumped in the car. Except they didn’t come out, and a cop knocked on the car window with his baton and all I heard was my dad’s voice booming, “Gio, it’s all over. You can’t get worse than going to jail.”
I’m putting everything back in the box when I see the envelope, so old it’s gotten soft like fabric. It’s addressed to my dad with “Maryland Correctional Facility” stamped across it. Inside is a piece of notebook paper, one side frayed like someone ripped it out. Something’s fluttering around my stomach as I read:
I don’t know what to say except I wish you’d come during visiting hours. I’ve been thinking about our boy. I asked my mom to send him something for his birthday. Please, can see him when I get out? Even if you’re still mad, I’m grateful to you.
The teddy bear. It had to have been that, my dad never got me stuffed animals. I used to hold that soft brown fur tight and duck under the covers when I got scared, no matter how hot and sticky it got. Now I wonder where that bear is.
My fingers tremble and everything is standing still. My dad’s not home yet so I cross the hall to his room, catching myself tiptoeing. I’ve sneaked in and searched through his stuff before, but maybe I missed something. There are more boxes lined against the wall, and I flip through old mortgage bills and Father’s Day cards, the funeral program for grandpa. Nothing else about the Maryland Correctional Facility or Denise.
The door slams downstairs. I dash in my room as quiet as I can and put my mom’s letter in my sock drawer.
My dad’s puttering around the kitchen. I ease down the stairs and stand in the hallway. I know what he’s doing even though I can’t see him. He’s walking to the stove, slippers shush-shushing on the floor. The oven dial clicks, the gas hisses, and the burner comes to life. A pan clangs against the metal grate and I hear the crunch of cutting onions before I smell their sharp sweetness. I stand there, not moving, waiting for what happens next. He goes to the fridge, pulls out a bloody red T-Bone, drops a hunk of butter in the pan. Steak and onions—he always eats the same thing for supper on Friday nights. I feel safe standing there, and I don’t want to break the spell. Then, he does.
“Gio, don’t just stand there, come here and tell me what it is you want.”
I wipe my hands on my jeans as I walk towards him. “Hi Pops.”
He wears his blue work shirt from the city car inspection office, his name on a patch over his heart. Maybe it’s because I couldn’t see him before, but I really see him now. The skin on his forehead is thick, wrinkles carved into his forehead. His fuzzy half Afro is almost all gray. But his eyes are clear as they look at me. I try to hold his gaze, but eventually I look away.
“You work hard today?”
“Changed the oil on two cars, did a brake inspection. Drove the tow.”
He grunts. “That’s the first time you towed?”
“What, boy? You mumbling.”
“Yes, sir.” I could be 8 or 18, it doesn’t matter. I want to show him that I’m 20 now. “Pops, I’m headed out. I’m gonna hook up with AJ and Tyrone.”
He looks back at the browning steak. “All right, well, you be careful.”
I stand there for a minute, rocking on my heels, figuring out what I want to say. Finally, he looks at me, puzzled. “Thought you were leaving.”
I nod and give a half wave as I open the back door.
Later, standing in the alley behind Scores with Tyrone and AJ, between rows of chain link fences that have shared our secrets, I wish I’d asked my dad what my mom was in jail for. Tyrone hands me a blunt as round and fat as a slug. I’m trying not to get too fucked up because of work and seeing Bianca, but I want my brain to shut off, so I hit it real hard. “Fuck, man, you gotta leave some for the rest of us.” AJ slaps me on the back, which is good because I’m coughing, looking through a haze of tears. We played jacks when we were kids, that changed to joints and blunts when we were 11 or so, hiding this shit from our parents. Things can only stay hidden for so long.
“Yo, Gio, we going in soon? You look like you got some shit you need to roll off, yessir, you do.” Tyrone’s fingers holding the blunt are lit by the club’s blue neon sign where the bass’ thump pulses.
AJ pipes up. “He’s scared Bianca won’t want nothing to do with him.” They slap hands. “Ohhhh….You still can’t hold on to that Latina ass?”
I mock an insulted look. “Man…come on now,” I say, “you know I slay.” They collapse on each other, laughing. I wish I hadn’t said that, and I can’t stop myself from blurting out, “Actually, she’s pregnant.” I can breathe easier the moment it comes out.
Neither of them say nothing. AJ speaks first. “No way, man. You weren’t using protection?” I shrug. “Well, you know my older brother Andre?” he continues. “He’s knocked his girl up like three times. I think he knocked up his side piece, too.”
“Thanks AJ. Make me sound like a player.”
AJ shakes his head. “Naw man, you know what I mean. It happens.”
The weed makes the next part easier. “Hey, could I borrow some cash from ya’ll? I’m tight right now with moving and all.”
“Hell yeah,” Tyrone says after I finish, and AJ nods. “Whatever you need, man.” Their answers should make it better, but my brain’s still running. I hit the blunt again.
Heading into the basement club, my head floats. The ceilings are low enough that you can lift the tiles with your fingertips and the black-and-white floors grab at your shoes with their stickiness. The bartenders are bitchy and slow, but that don’t matter because they don’t card. Maybe someday, we’ll be dressed up in nice button downs, maybe real chains, walking into a nightclub with shiny floors you could slip on, mirrors on the ceiling so you can see how chill it is. I’ll hire a limo and we’ll drive to the buildings that are towers in the distance and I’ll throw down to get bottles of Grey Goose with pitchers of orange juice so fresh you can smell it.
People pack in real tight, and I get a cranberry vodka and scan for Bianca. She’s in one of the booths along the side of the room wearing this bra top thing that is so sexy and torn-up jeans. I ease my way toward her. She doesn’t smile, but scoots over so I can sit next to her.
“Hey,” I say, not sure if I should touch her.
“Hi Gio.” She doesn’t look at me.
I wait a minute, wishing her green eyes would turn towards me. “Wanna talk?”
Her shoulders sink down, and she slides off the booth. I follow outside. She crosses her arms and I want to wrap my jacket around her, but something stops me. She says, “I got an appointment Thursday.” She pauses. “I guess you’re gonna tell me you don’t want nothing to do with me no more.”
My head feels that speed rush again. “Why would you say that?” I stammer, realizing, too late, that I don’t sound cool at all.
“It’s like my sister says, once this happens, girls get ruined.” Her bottom lip quivers and I look down at my shoes.
“Naw, that ain’t true,” I say finally. The words don’t come out easy, and I go slow enough that I won’t regret anything. “I still think about you. It don’t matter about the abortion. It happens.” I reach in my pocket, and hand her the twenties. She holds them in her palm for a minute, like she might try to hand them back, but she slides them into her pocket. Her green eyes meet mine and she asks, “Will you dance with me?”
Back inside, I mold my body around hers, her warmth sinking inside me. A giant drum pounds in my chest and I hold her tight even though sweat drips down my stomach, soaks my shirt. Bianca turns and reaches for my hat and my hair tumbles out. I let go of her so I can smooth it down, but she holds my hands. “I like it,” she says, blinking real slow, never taking her eyes off mine, like we’re the only people in the room.
Tyrone comes over to tell us they’re going to some chick’s house. We roll out in Ubers, me and Tyrone in the back with Bianca, who hasn’t let go of my arm. I rub my hand up and down her leg and let my arm graze her titty. At the house, AJ holds a squat Crown Royal bottle to my lips and I gulp. Bianca’s fingers move through mine, her nails strumming my knuckles. Tyrone laughs and tips a Grey Goose bottle in my direction. “Yeah, Gio, look at ya’ll.” I glare at him as I say, “C’mon man,” but I know he can tell I’m not serious. Bianca tugs at my hand, leading me down the hallway.
We go to a room with a bed against one wall and though it’s dark, I can see a blanket thrown across rumpled sheets. Bianca says, “She won’t care, I promise.” I want to ask if this is weird because of the baby, but her hands are on my chest, sliding down my body, lifting off my shirt. I find her mouth with mine and my hands grip her ass through the back pockets of her jeans and she unzips her bra top. We fall on the bed and I float in her softness that is all the softest things I’ve ever touched. When she lifts herself up to unbutton my pants I reach for her to come back, to lay with me so I can hold her and touch her and melt.
I wake up in my bed the next day, my head pounding. On mornings like this I imagine stretching out in a California king with sheets that stay cool forever. Then I feel sad because once my dad moves, I won’t see the light shine in that certain spot over the curtains.
I reach for my phone. It flashes 12:03 and I re-trace how I got here, stumbling in around 3 a.m. I text Bianca, “You get home ok?” Then I type, “had a good time last night,” but erase it.
The door bursts open and there’s my dad. He’s breathing hard, eyes wide. When he gets like this, it’s hard to tell what will happen and I wonder how fast I can fit my stuff in my car. “Boy, have you been messing with my things?” his voice thunders. “Were you trying to steal from me?”
Shit, I must not have been careful after I found the letter.
I know I could stall, but I don’t want to. “I was looking for stuff about mom.”
He looks like he wants to lunge but invisible hands hold him back. “She wants nothing to do with you,” his voice booms. “She’s never even seen you since she left.”
I push off the covers, stand up, and go to the drawer. My mouth tastes like copper and my palms sweat. I pull out the letter, and when I hand it to my dad, his shoulders soften. He slides onto the bed, gazing at the envelope. He’s quiet.
“I want to know who she is,” I say finally. My phone buzzes, a message from Bianca, but I don’t dare check it. “She went to jail. Is that why she left me with you?”
“Where’d you find this?” he asks.
“In the box you left for me.”
“I didn’t…” he sputters but stops. “I wasn’t thinking you’d find this,” he says a minute later.
My phone goes off again and I walk across the room to grab it. It’s my boss. I’d forgotten to set my alarm, and now I’m 20 minutes late to work and he’s threatening to call a replacement. I can barely sputter “Ok,” before he hangs up. Shit, shit, shit. “I gotta go to work, Pops,” I say. I almost fall over my work boots as I root through my closet for a shirt. He’s still sitting on my bed. I pull on my coveralls and dash out the door.
Big George isn’t too mad and I try not to think about anything else but work. I text Tyrone and end up staying over with him and AJ that night, and the next. The morning after that, when I’m at work, a buzzing comes from my pocket. It’s my dad. I hit “decline,” but the phone keeps buzzing from his voicemail. I put the phone up to my ear.
“Hey…Gio,” he says. “Your mom. Her name’s Denise Taylor. Last I heard she lived around Abingdon, 20 miles or so up 95.” He sighs. “She was all into drugs, Gio. She was with some guy when he held up a store and she got charged with accessory and possession.” His voice gets higher, tighter. “I didn’t want you to end up like her. I didn’t want you to feel used like I did.” I breathe as quiet as I can so I don’t miss anything. “She tried to get in touch a couple times. She called once because she wanted you to come to her wedding. That’s all I got to say.” Then he hangs up.
I swallow over and over. Denise Taylor, Denise Taylor, Denise Taylor. Her name rings through my head all day.
The Saturn shudders to a stop when I reach the block with the houses like boxes tucked into the hills. The street is so wide that three cars can fit across and it’s green everywhere. Nothing fancy like where Big George’s garage is. The houses are small, made of siding, not stone or bricks, and the doors are in the front with barely any trim or shutters. But it’s nice and open. The houses are pretty far from each other and the driveways have work trucks or sedans. A couple are on blocks like someone’s working on them, and a few yards have rusty looking lawn furniture, garden hoses, old patio umbrellas. It’s quiet. The silence itself seems like a noise.
Bianca wanted to come, but I needed to do this on my own. I place the paper with the address on the seat next to me and close out Google maps on my phone. My hands tremble. Big George’s friend at the DMV found the address—pops was right, she’s in Abingdon. He didn’t ask where I was going, but I broke our two-day silence to tell him I might have a place to live. It only took 20 minutes to get here, and it would take less than that to get to the garage.
In the fading light, I see toys in the yard in front of me—a couple bikes lay on their sides, a bouncy ball so big you can sit on, and a yellow plastic stove with black outlines of burners. The red front door opens and a little boy runs out. He’s 7 or so and has curly red hair cut short. He wears an Orioles T-shirt and jean shorts and the shoelaces on his scuffed-up sneakers are untied. He jumps on a bike and speeds away. A second later, a woman follows him. “Jeffrey, you be careful!” she calls.
It’s like I’m dreaming. She’s skinny and tall, and her bright red hair is like the boy’s except it covers her shoulders. Her cheeks are sunken, and she’s got this tired look like she’s seen some shit. Her shoulders hunch in her tank top over faded jeans. There’s something about her—I know her so well that I’m not surprised to see her. She looks towards the Saturn and puts a hand up to shade her eyes, and I think she sees me. But she walks by the car, yelling, “Jeffrey, that’s too far!”
A man follows, a little girl toddling after him. He’s got a goatee that matches his blond buzz cut and a belly rounding his T-shirt. He wears work boots and paint-flecked pants and the sunburn on his face makes it look like he works construction. The girl has curly hair too, blonde like the guy’s. They stop next to my mom, waving at the boy. He reaches the end of the street, stops, and points the bike in their direction. The man rests his arm on my mom’s shoulder. She looks at him and her eyes light up before she smiles. The girl reaches up to hold her hand.
I want to open the car door and walk out, put my head on my mom’s shoulder, feel the girl’s tiny fingers in mine. She’s the one who finally sees me, pointing and yelling, “Daddy, there’s a man in that car.”
He looks at me, not smiling, and walks toward me. My mom stares, too, and I want to smile, even say, “Hey mom.” But this is all strange, and I must look weird on their street. I fiddle with the keys and almost drop them and the engine revs like a growling dog as I put it into drive and speed away. My eyes are hot and my gut is like it’s taken a good right hand. I don’t dare look in the mirror, but I want to think that she’s watching.
Bianca is waiting at the corner store. Curly and Flaco and Smooth Drew are still there, holding paper bags with 40s. Now that the sun has almost set, the light from inside houses glows like heartbeats. I take her hand and we walk up the hill. In the harbor, a big freight ship eases across the pink and purple sky. Its shipping container cargo looks like building blocks I played with as a kid stacked on top of each other.
My mom’s letter is in the pocket of my sweatshirt and I take it out, stare at how she wrote my name. “You can always try again,” Bianca says, twirling her thumb around mine. I nod.
The ships in the harbor are almost shadows in the dim light, but a smaller vessel, a fishing boat, with a big wide net on its rigging, is getting closer. This isn’t the right time for fishing, but there it is, chugging along.
“I’m moving in with AJ and Tyrone,” I say. “It’s gonna suck cause I’ll be on an air mattress.”
“What about your dad?” Bianca asks.
I shrug. Shouts come from the side of the store, Curly telling the other guys how he had this friend lie to him. I’ve heard it before. “Man, the fucked-up thing is I thought it was one way, but the whole time it was another,” he exclaims. “Water under the bridge, Curly, water under the bridge,” someone says.
“He’s done what he can,” I say.
“Oh,” she breaks in. “Sorry…I was gonna tell you the appointment won’t take more than two hours since I’m not that far along.”
We’re quiet. The horizon is like the inside of an oven lit by the orange ball of the setting sun. The fishing boat passes by the ships that are docked for the night. Bianca wipes her cheek. “I’m worried I’m gonna walk funny after,” she sputters.
I’ve got a big cave inside me, but my fingers find Bianca’s hair and I stroke it. The fishing boat pulls steady, almost reaching the mouth of the harbor. Beyond it, the Chesapeake Bay is a bowl of spilled ink, deep, dark, and thick. Bianca turns toward the store, but I stand there and watch the boat, its mast lifted up like a fist.