We were going to the rodeo. Despite all the rigmarole with loading up the horses, saddles, and ice chests in preparation for the trip, the entire experience was exhilarating. During the week he may have spent his days loading shipping containers at the Houston Ship Channel until he was exhausted or chanced his paycheck on the roll of the dice on Stassen Street or the dexterity of his pool cue at Jewel’s Lounge or listened to Mother’s harangues while trying to watch the Astros game, but none of that mattered on Sunday because on Sunday, Father was a bona fide rock star in the black rodeo circuit and nobody questioned that.
We loaded up a palomino named TJ. A beautiful, cream-colored horse that Father had been training for calf roping. Then we loaded in a jumpy quarter horse called Black Jack. That was my horse and part of Father’s blatant attempt to make me a horseman. Black Jack had come off the racetrack and was a bit skittish, prone to take off without any warning. And although I protested about Black Jack being my horse, wanting a kinder, gentler ride, Father was adamant. If he rares up on ya, grab them reins and jerk ’em and tell him to cut it out, he said. Take control of the animal is what he meant. Take control. Don’t get used or run over. Grab the reins. But it didn’t matter. I got thrown off that horse more than I care to mention. And every time I was thrown off, Father would run to me with worry and concern like that day in the flood when I was little. And he’d help me up and tell me not to cry.
“Crying never solved anything, Ti’ John. It only makes you focus on your failure and bad shit. Don’t cry. Focus on how to do things right the next time so that you don’t have to cry. Do you understand what I’m tryin’ to tell ya?” he said.
We rode in his brown Chevy pickup pulling a horse trailer down FM 521 South headed to Angleton, Texas. Cold Schlitz rested in the coffee holder next to my Big Red. Charley Pride crooned on the eight-track asking if anybody was going to San Anton’ or Phoenix, Arizona. The AC was on full blast. Driver’s-side window cracked slightly so that my middle name wouldn’t change to Benson & Hedges. A CB radio crackled under the ashtray with random gibberish, a foreign language understood by men who spent long hours on the white line. Father had been a member of that fraternity from time to time, privy to its secret codes and rituals.
“Daddy, you think they gonna let Cookie stay in Heaven?” I asked.
“The girl that got hit by the bus.”
“But she ain’t get baptized. Sister Marie Thérèse said you gotta be baptized to go to Heaven.”
He took his time with that one.
“Everybody don’t go to Heaven, Ti’ John,” he answered.
“They go to the hot place?” I asked.
He lit a cigarette.
“I’ma tell you something and you better not repeat it. Understand?”
“Ain’t no such thing as Hell, Ti’ John. That’s just some bullshit them white folks came up with to get people scared,” he answered.
“What about in the Bible?”
“White folks wrote the Bible.” He grabbed the CB receiver. “Breaker one-nine, pushing down 521 South, who got their ears on?”
He joined the precursor of online chat rooms—the CB chat room—effectively ending our discussion on the afterlife.
I stared at passing crops. Green. Brown. Tan. Brown. Green.
“Daddy, look at that,” I said, but he stared straight ahead while getting reports on Smokey in between lurid jokes. He didn’t see it, I thought.
About a hundred feet off FM 521 in a barren field of dirt I noticed a figure on its knees, hunched over. As we got closer I could see it was a man, a dark man in dark clothes wearing a large hat. He saw me staring. I think. I knew it. Just as we passed by, the man stood up, facing my curious eyes, took off his hat, and leaned forward with a deep ceremonious bow. It was friendly, respectful, even regal.
“Daddy, did you see that man?” I asked more urgently, but Father ignored me.
I peeked through the side view and the man was still there watching. I think he waved.
“That’s peas over there. See? Look at that. Boy, I usedta pick some peas back in Basile,” Father said fondly after hanging up the CB.
It didn’t matter which crop it was, he always would say he used to pick, cut, or dig that particular crop when he was growing up. Field peas. Mustard greens. Sugarcane. Potatoes. Rice. Turnips. Watermelons. And cotton. Cotton. Even Mother admitted to picking cotton back in the day. Now, when I first heard this cotton admission I recalled the TV movie Roots, with slaves picking cotton. It didn’t make sense to me. How could they have picked cotton? Response? Somebody or the other had a cotton farm and the cotton had to be picked. In Father’s case, it was part of his upbringing as sharecroppers if that’s what was growing. But Mother, she took a more noble explanation, saying that all of her cousins had to go to their grandparents’ house and toil under the sun to make the load as a rite of passage but, more important, as a lesson in hard work and how far black people had come.
Now, all of this was true. No exaggerations. And later I would discover that many people my parents’ age from Texas and Louisiana shared a similar plight. Some by necessity, like Father. Others as an excessive summer camp hosted by family members who still practiced the ancient art of cotton farming. Something about saying that you picked cotton carried a sense of history, strength, and perseverance. And these people from that generation downright bragged about that shit. I had to pick cotton. I had to pick cotton every summer. I had to pick cotton every summer or my uncle wouldna’ gave us nuthin’ to eat.
Since I associated picking cotton with slavery, I’d ask, “Did they whip you real hard?”
“What?” Father would ask.
“The white guy on the horse with the whip. Did he hit you real hard?” I’d inquire innocently, lamenting poor Kunta Kinte trying to escape a color twenty-inch Zenith plantation with foil paper on the antennas. Mother made me watch it, but Father wasn’t interested in reliving the past. I mean he really had a problem with Roots, which was really a show for white folks anyway. Why we gotta keep reminding ourselves about that shit? he’d say in his nonpolitical way. But keep in mind, Mother was the one who bragged about picking cotton, so a TV show that highlighted the labor was right up her child-rearing alley.
“If you was lazy out there, my uncle would get that belt,” both of them would say. Always an uncle who whips your ass extra special.
I continued with the questions about the crops, and Father was more than happy to identify them. In some ways, it was a reminder of Basile and the toils of being a sharecropper, but what I didn’t know was that he was an expert at things that grew from the ground.
He grinned and hummed Charley Pride in between sips of beer, puffs of tobacco, and my questions. But as we got closer to Angleton his mood began to shift and he quieted. It would soon be time for him to perform and he had to get in the zone.
We turned off FM 521 onto a gravel road that led into a desolate rough. Trucks and cars lined the sides of the road leading to an aluminum gate where an elderly black man in cowboy attire sold tickets for entry. Six dollars for adults. Three dollars for kids. Small, rectangular tickets were exchanged and we’d put those tickets in our hatbands. The rodeo arenas all looked the same, some larger or smaller than others. But always the same design, very functional and only the necessities.
A dirt road would lead to a large, usually one hundred yards, clearing in the middle of nowhere with a small arena built of rotting wood. Wooden bleachers sided the arena. Rotting wood, of course, with chutes and a wooden tower, where the announcer rambled from a scratchy PA system. Outside the arena, wooden, yes, rotting, outhouses were placed. And a shack with a huge barbeque pit in the rear served food and refreshments, and almost always hosted a jukebox and pool table.
This was the black rodeo circuit in Texas during the early 1980s. No sponsors. No telecast. Just hard-living rural black folks, mostly, who wagered their entrance fees on their ability to lasso or ride a large animal. Dangerous? Hell yes. Both the event and the people.
We waited in a line of trucks pulling horse trailers. Father scanned the large crowd. Some recognized his truck and would hoop and holler. Father casually nodded at his fans, hiding his glee. It took so long to become somebody. But he earned it—the good and the bad.
That’s what they called him after he returned to the South following the incident in Los Angeles, but he would say that he preferred the pseudonym rather than his given name because “them cowboy niggas is a rough bunch. They don’t need to know nothing about me.” But they did. They knew where he lived, where he kept his horses, where he worked, all the info. But then again, they admired him because he was deadly accurate with the lasso, the bullwhip, knives, pistols, arrows, spit, and every other thing he learned from those years in Basile, Louisiana, and from film sets in Agua Dulce Canyon, California. A regular Wild Bill Hickok with the charm and grace of a screen actor. He was smooth, a fact that didn’t go unnoticed by the women in attendance, married or unmarried.
But they also knew that he was tough and would fight at the drop of a dime. Nobody fucked with John Frenchy. Nobody.
Our horses snorted as they shuffled backward out of the trailer. TJ, carved from cream marble with a golden mane, made a stately exit. A proud animal indeed. Father grabbed the reins and huffed a command. The golden horse extended his front hooves, then dipped into a bow. Many looked at the spectacle as Father mounted the prostrating animal. Show-off. I put one foot in the stirrup of my skittish bastard, Black Jack, and he started moving, avoiding my mount, denying my glory.
“Yank the reins, Ti’ John.”
I did, but Black Jack kept moving so I had to mount in motion. Bastard.
Father lit a cigarette, then made a clicking sound. We headed out. He liked to take a spin around the arena when he’d first arrive to see his friends and let everybody know he was there. An impresario of the highest caliber. And off we’d go for our presentation lap. John Frenchy and Lil’ Frenchy. That’s what they called me, and I can’t say that I minded it much. It carried some weight with the rough kids of these rough people, because you sure as hell didn’t fuck with John Frenchy’s son.
Now imagine a black carnival where the smells of barbeque, cigarette smoke, and manure mixed into a delightful rustic aroma and nobody held their nose. All around us, black people of all ages in cowboy attire. Hats and boots. If your clothes were too clean then they’d assume you weren’t a real cowboy. As we moved slowly through the crowd on high atop our steeds, smiles and waves and whispers and nods confirmed Father’s status. He was a rock star and I was his son.
In the 1970s and early ’80s, Father competed in “breakaway” calf roping, where the roper flies out of the chute after a calf that’s given a bit of a lead. The roper must rope the calf, jump off the horse, slam the calf on its side, then quickly tie down all four legs with a smaller rope called a “pinky string.” The roper who can manage that in the shortest amount of time wins. That was Father’s money event. He was going to win that.
But he’d also compete in “team roping,” which involves two ropers who chase a steer out of a chute. One roper must lasso the steer’s horns (called “head”), and the other must lasso both back feet (called “tails”) for time. This required a different type of finesse because the head roper must swing the steer to make the back legs more available. This was John Frenchy’s big question as we rode around the arena. Who was going to be his partner for team roping?
Grown men would tease and pander to get Father to partner with them. They wanted the money and a chance for the buckle. Father enjoyed the attention and admiration with gibes and good humor, a subtle coaxing for side bets and lofty wagers. And while rodeoing is about athletic prowess and skill with the animal, it was also an occasion for good ole signifying, drinking, and gambling. This was outlaw business, and those who attended knew very well that only one or two constables might be present and, if so, probably drunk. So you had to watch your mouth and your stuff because anything could happen inside or outside the arena.
Father spotted his close friend, the bull rider Arthur Duncan, who would later become the first black man inducted into the Professional Bull Riding Hall of Fame.
“Eh, John Frenchy, who ya team-roping with?” Arthur Duncan said while helping me off the horse.
“Awh, none of these niggas can rope. Hell, I might have to carry me two ropes and work that steer by my damn self,” Father boasted as Arthur Duncan handed him a bottle of Wild Turkey for a hearty swig.
Father turned the bottle up, then chased it back with a Schlitz. A few slutty-looking rodeo bunnies eyed him from afar with suggestive gestures—batting fake eyelashes with over-applied eye shadow and nail-matching lipstick wet as water, exaggerated leans and bends to highlight skintight Gloria Vanderbilt jeans and danty snakeskin boots, and a “Hey, John Frenchy,” or a “You ropin’ today?” and almost always a “Where’s Mrs. Frenchy?” Answer? Mrs. Frenchy was at home asking the Blessed Mother to watch over her child and make certain Mr. Frenchy didn’t bring home anything she couldn’t wash out with Tide.
Of course, these rodeo bunnies found me absolutely adorable as it was Father’s habit to dress me in the same clothes that he wore when we’d go to rodeos. Strangely, only a few knew of John Frenchy’s affinity for dolls. I was a miniature version of him, I guess. And what greater trophy for a man than an actual living and breathing doll that looks just like you.
But these women fawned over Father incessantly, which only emboldened his hubris as we circulated around the arena before his events.
For his part, Arthur Duncan was the perfect colleague-in-recreation for Father. Duncan was a pure country boy from Brenham, Texas, who’d fine-tuned his championship bull-riding mastery in the Texas Prison Rodeo, where he served seven years for cracking his first wife’s skull after she commented on his complexion. Duncan was dark, very dark, and didn’t take too kindly to disparaging remarks about what the good Lord gave him. You didn’t talk about Arthur Duncan’s complexion or his pride and joy—his signature white cowboy boots.
When Duncan walked out of the Huntsville prison, in 1969, he became a black revolutionary but not with black berets, leather jackets, and propoganda. He carried his protest to the rodeo arenas. The white rodeo arenas. Besides his entrance fee, he typically had to pay much more to enter the events, which were basically white-only affairs in huge arenas constructed of steel and tin. Normally after he’d win an event he’d either have to fight envious cowboys or hightail it back to Brenham, usually both, in that order. But as the years passed and the number of championship buckles and subsequent fights grew, the white pro rodeo circuit accepted him—the man who fought for civil rights on the back of a bull with glowing lily-white cowboy boots.
Arthur Duncan and John Frenchy—the dangerous men—wrapped in a titan aura, a glow that gave them an air of nobility among derelicts, pleasure seekers, and good ole country boys—were royalty on the black rodeo circuit. And for two country boys that was a mighty fine accomplishment. Mighty fine, indeed.
Blues and country music blasted from the scratchy PA in between events. A fight broke out here and there. Somebody had a knife. Another had a gun. Men and women would make eyes and lurid whispers in ears for romps later, when it got dark.
Some were ex-cons like Father’s friend Butterfield, who was a known rapist and car thief. Others were educators like Dr. Poindexter, the veterinarian who taught at Prairie View A&M. He’d give discounted horse vaccinations to these cowboys, most of whom were cowboying on a budget. The Fifth Ward golden boy Mickey Leland kissed babies and provided photo ops for his next bid for Congress. Ntozake Shange sat sidesaddle on a Tennessee walker conjuring verses about a crowd that really didn’t know who the hell she was. Father seemed pleased with all of this as he nursed the beer with a familiar grin. Then he handed me five dollars and told me to be careful. That was it. Off I’d go into this den of thieves, playwrights, politicians, rapists, and veterinarians.
I took off for the refreshment area for a Frito pie and a strawberry soda. A few older kids had commandeered the pool table and were betting on shots, imitating the adults with wagers. Stevie Wonder professed from the jukebox—“that girl thinks that she’s so fine.” And I just tried to stay out of anybody’s way, but my presence wouldn’t go unnoticed. Girls my age were milling about, giggling, writing letters and notes on barbeque-stained napkins to the older boys around the pool table. This had been going on before I arrived. Then I entered and the focus shifted. The back of my neck got hot as a toaster, and it wasn’t because I was John Frenchy’s son, oh no, although that did have its benefits. I was the light-skinned dude in the room and, brother, the letters and notes started coming like I was the postman.
Since kindergarten, I had been well aware of the premium of being light-complexioned among black folks, particularly girls. I hadn’t spent much time around white folks, and when I visited family in Louisiana my skin tone really wasn’t a big deal because there were a lot of people who looked like me. But in Texas, this complexion thing was carrying some weight, both good and bad. I didn’t think too much of it, still working with a developing ego that only sought acceptance inasmuch as it would provide playmates and defense against bullies. At eight, that was my main emotional concern, but I did notice that for the past three years I had gained unearned favor with girls because of my looks. And riding the wall near a pool table in a shanty during a rodeo was no exception. There was a general excitement in their eyes when they saw me. Hell if I knew why. I couldn’t swim. I couldn’t fight. I couldn’t pop a wheelie. I could barely throw a football. All of this because Mother wouldn’t let me go on Ricky Street, of course. But somehow none of that mattered and I wondered, if these girls knew all my shortcomings, would their eyes still dance? Or would I be the inadequate fly on the shanty wall that stood before them?
This attention didn’t go unnoticed by the older boys, who were plotting to get their fingers stanky or pull a little tongue. I inadvertently thwarted their plans and would soon become a victim if I didn’t figure something out. One of them, a little closer to my age, noticed what was going on and decided to befriend me, maybe thinking that some of this female attention would rub off on him. It kind of worked. His name was Harold and his father used to fuck him.
Harold was ten years old and was missing his front teeth. Big brown eyes and complexion with a dusty red afro. He had a lot of energy, but most of the boys didn’t play with him because the rumor about him and his father had circulated around the rodeo circuit for some time although no one dared to investigate.
After conferencing with the girls by the jukebox, Harold proudly came over to me and announced that two of the girls wanted to get booty. He pointed at the young vixens, who blushed. Hell, I blushed too. I hadn’t got booty, didn’t really know how except with my action figures, and that didn’t count. Harold then started to chide me about being scared of girls. This went on for hours until Arthur Duncan stepped into the refreshment shack with two young bunnies on his arms, saying, “Lil’ Frenchy! Ya daddy ’bout to rope.”
“You Frenchy’s son?” Harold asked as the older boys gathered around me with looks of astonishment. I told you he was a legend.
“Yeah,” I answered as humbly as I could, then left with Arthur Duncan and his foxy escorts.
Father won both events and left me under the care of a hideously obese woman who sold catfish sandwiches from an Igloo cooler so that he could flip his winnings with a throw of the dice. But I didn’t mind because the main event was coming as the sky darkened and the stolen stadium lights illuminated the dusty arena. It was time for the bull riding.
There are only two rules when you’re a youngster watching bull riding. Don’t put your fingers in the fence and don’t sit on the fence. Usually, when you become a teenager, you show your courage by sitting on the fence but only after you have stopped shooting duck water. Bull riding is grown men’s business and deadly, as I would soon learn. After Arthur Duncan locked in a competitive time on his bull, a flurry of challengers came and went, most thrown off and some with rides too pathetic to garner any respect or score.
Then a gracile, pecan-colored man with a reddish brown “shag” (black folks’ answer to a mullet) confidently hopped the fence into the arena and headed for the chutes. His Wranglers looked as brand-new as his floral-print Western shirt, both of which looked heavily starched. I smirked, remembering Father once saying, “Cain’t trust no redheaded nigga ’cause a nigga like that grow up mad at hisself, mad at how his hair turned out.”
“That’s my daddy,” Harold said as he joined me next to the catfish sandwich woman.
“Oh yeah?” I responded, rather impressed that his redheaded, pedophile father was a bull rider.
Harold didn’t show up empty-handed either. Three prepubescent girls sat with us, smelling like candy, barbeque, cigarette smoke, and the all-too-familiar manure. They started pinching me.
Harold’s daddy climbed onto the beast with hurried confidence, staring down at the animal’s head with occasional nods to the chute boss and cowboys who strapped his right hand into the bull’s collar. He nodded quickly and the chute opened.
The animal charged out of the chute with angry bucks. Up and down. Twist to the left, then the right. And Harold’s father held on. You could hear Harold’s heart racing as his father reached the eighth second.
The crowd roared. It was a fine ride indeed, worthy of a champion’s score if only he could dismount. He was stuck, locked to an angry animal that only sought to get the damn tickling rope off its hinds. But Harold’s father wouldn’t let go. In fact, he couldn’t. He was tied down to a series of ropes that extended to the bull’s hinds, behind the ribs. This is a sensitive area for many animals that arguably may tickle if touched. The bull hates this feeling just as most people do when tickled. Then there’s the cowbell that’s strapped to the animal for dramatic effect but also confuses it with every ring. So this half-ton beast is getting tickled and a bell is mocking it. No wonder they kick like hell.
Cowboys rushed in on horses trying to side the bull so that the trapped man could grab a saddle and escape, but it was impossible because the bull was turning violently, scaring the horses away. Some clowns, the unsung heroes of bull riding, danced and gallivanted around the bull while others attempted to reach the strap to free the man, only to be gored by the animal, which still had sharp horns. One clown took a horn in the thigh and was thrown into the stands. A young girl screamed. Another clown took a horn to the back and quickly decided to permanently commit to a life in the church, jumping quickly out of the arena and dashing for his sister’s rusted LTD along the dirt road. Better to be in church on Sunday, he thought as he headed back to Acres Homes while staining the faux velour seats with his bloody wound and singing spirituals.
Yet Harold’s father tried desperately to be freed from the animal until he was dangling on its side, arm hyperextended like that of a rag doll. Cowboys on horses quickened their pace. Arthur Duncan jumped into the arena on foot to save his fraternity brother, but it was no use.
The bull tossed Harold’s father into the air about eight feet, sending the man crashing onto his back. The crowd, boisterous only seconds ago, now hushed. And rather than embrace the distractions of the sidemen and clowns who fought for its attention to get Harold’s father out of harm’s way, the bull stopped and looked at Harold, who was basically in a state of shock. For one, maybe two seconds, the bull and Harold made eye contact, a knowing contact. I quickly turned to Harold, whose eyes were locked on the animal, and heard him whisper, “Kill him.”
The bull was obedient to a wounded child’s plea and sent its horns into the man’s guts at a vengeful speed, opening him up like a watermelon, entrails and blood flying to and fro. What horror.
A careful ear could hear the punctures and churning by the horns. The bull huffed and snarled like it was blowing its nose. The crowd gasped. Some cried, mostly women. Others screamed and yelled. Get him outta there! Somebody save him! Call the police! Yet none of them were willing to step one foot into that arena besides the cowboys and clowns.
The catfish woman grabbed Harold and pushed his face into her supple breast. He wasn’t crying.
“Lil’ Frenchy, turn yer head,” she instructed me, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. My eyes were fixated on the brilliant, fresh red fount from the man’s belly. It didn’t look real. It looked like cherry Kool-Aid—the flavor used to make red cool cups.
Then two cutting rifle reports cracked the air. The bull stopped abruptly and fell on its side. All heads turned to Father, who was sitting on the fence, chambering another round into a rifle to kill the vengeful beast.
Now there was silence but for the click of Father’s bolt action. He jumped into the arena with the rifle aimed at the snarling beast, which remained on its side, breathing heavy, white froth dangling from its nose, eyes half opened—big eyes, big brown eyes. Cowboys and clowns alike moved back as Father cautiously approached with the rifle trained on the animal’s head.
“He dead, John,” Arthur Duncan assured Father as the men rushed to the dying man’s aid. Arthur Duncan was correct, both man and beast were dead. Harold finally started to cry as someone quickly swept him away so that he wouldn’t have to witness the mess. Kill him.
Suddenly my feet started to itch, both of them, on the soles. I had on clean socks, Mother had made sure of that. Then I smelled something burning.
“You smell something burning?” I asked the catfish woman as I took off my boots and scratched, but she was too busy praying to Jesus.
Dr. Poindexter rushed into the arena and took a knee at the body, yelling for hot water and clean rags. He felt for a pulse at the neck and wrist even though there was a huge, gaping hole in the man’s stomach that no longer spouted blood. Harold’s father was dead and there wasn’t a damn thing the good doctor could do about it but cover the body.
You could hear a mouse piss on cotton as everyone reverently took off their hats and placed them over their hearts while the announcer led them in the Lord’s Prayer.
And while Father argued with other men about who’d get pieces of the bull’s butchered parts, I put my boots back on and joined him in the arena.
I tugged at Father’s shirt and told him, “I don’t wanna eat none of that bull.”
He laughed and picked me up, then turned to the testy men with “Well, I don’t want none of that cursed bull either. Yawl niggas eat up. But you step in one of them arenas with that bull in your belly and you can bet that this here bull’s kinfolk gonna tear your ass up.”
Louisiana black people, like most black people, are superstitious. Maybe because we are so aware of the real world, having been denied so much of it for so long, that we accept what’s just past it, the other side of reality. That understanding gives us access to magic. Father meant what he said. Half of those rough and tough cowboys swore off beef after that night.
Maybe it was the Wild Turkey or the fact that he flipped his winnings three times with the dice or that he got to shoot the bull in front of everybody, but Father was talkative on the way back home. Hero status reaffirmed.
“You all right?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said, a bit remorseful.
“You gotta remember not to be by the fence when they ridin’ them bulls. Them niggas be half drunk and not payin’ attention and anything can happen. You understand?” he asked.
He popped open another Schlitz and handed it to me.
“Here. That one’s for you. Don’t tell your momma. Matter fact, don’t tell her about none of this tonight ’cause you know how she likes to worry,” he said.
“I know, Daddy,” I said and took a sip of my very first beer.
That night I lay in bed, tipsy, listening to the distant train on Mykawa Road and the busy mouse gnawing on the Sheetrock wall trying to get me. He was determined and steady, chipping away inside the wall, plotting his meal. My toes, then my legs to prevent me from running away. He sounded small, innocuous, but his gnawing reverberated, hummed and vibrated the worn wooden floor. I could feel it from my metal trundle bed. The mouse was coming for me. And my only solace was the reluctant glimmer of light peeking from the Star Wars curtains. Use the Force, Ti’ John. Not enough to muster courage. Not enough to foster hope that the avid mouse would retire for the evening or get lockjaw. Maybe if I could look into his eyes and make contact, like Harold with the bull, he could be convinced.
• • •
Despite three killings in one week, I was holding up pretty well. School continued the next morning without a word about Cookie or her father. Adelai had been in psychiatric custody of some sort and there was no blood in the church, but we all knew what happened at Station 6. Gunshots and buzzers and screeching tires, alarms signaling danger, yet I managed to stay safe. And for that I felt stronger, more able to handle what the world was preparing to throw my way. I was gaining a sense of daring. Maybe I could go on Ricky Street now without fear. Maybe. Mother had to be busy or gone. I had no idea what awaited me on Ricky Street, but those other incidents didn’t offer warning either. I committed to disobeying Mother. I committed to daring. I’d have to pick a good day for play, because if I got caught there was a good chance that I wouldn’t be leaving the house for a while. I needed a day when everybody, young and old, would be outside. I didn’t want to miss a thing or person. I wanted to know everything happening on Ricky Street, which could only mean one day out of all seven. Saturday. The official weekly holiday for all black folks in good standing. With God’s blessing, Mother would have to be properly distracted for a good eight hours. I had a day appointed. Now I had to wait.
The next day, Saturday, Mother decided that she’d spend the entire day cooking a pot of gumbo. Have mercy! Making gumbo is an event that requires the cook to stay on the pot for most of the day, a sacrifice with the promise of a worthy meal. It requires commitment, attention to detail, and very limited distractions. Excellent. Thank you, God.
I grabbed a few toys and headed for the door.
“I’m gonna play out in the front,” I told Mother.
“Be careful. Come in and use the bathroom. Ms. Johnson say she saw you peein’ on the side of the house,” Mother responded.
I didn’t bother to take up the accusation because it was true and Ms. Johnson didn’t have any business looking at an eight-year-old pee anyway. She lived next door and I did pee. On her house. Right under the bathroom window. She saw me peeing and I saw her slamming a syringe in her arm. We made eye contact and she looked surprised. I guess she was doing something bad. If she was a kid she wouldn’t have said anything, let bygones be bygones. Fuckin’ adults.
Before I opened the front door, I smelled it again—burning wood. But the house could burn down for all I cared. I was headed to Ricky Street to see what all the damn noise was about.
Red Now and Laters
South Park, Houston, Texas, 1977, is where we first meet Ti’ John, a young boy under the care of his larger-thanlife father—a working-class rodeo star and a practitioner of vodou—and his mother—a good Catholic and cautious disciplinarian— who forbids him to play with the neighborhood “hoodlums.” Ti’ John, throughout the era of Reaganomics and the dawn of hip-hop and cassette tapes, must negotiate the world around him and a peculiar gift he’s inherited from his father and Jules Saint-Pierre “Nonc” Sonnier, a deceased ancestor who visits the boy, announcing himself with the smell of smoke on a regular basis. In many ways, Ti’ John is an ordinary kid who loses his innocence as he witnesses violence and death, as he gets his heart broken by girls and his own embittered father, as he struggles to live up to his mother’s middle-class aspirations and his father’s notion of what it is to be a man. In other ways, he is different—from his childhood buddies and from the father who is his hero.
The question throughout this layered and complex coming-of-age story is will Ti’ John survive the bad side of life—and his upbringing—and learn how to recognize and keep what is good.