EVERYTHING IS BACKWARD
IT WAS THE FIRST DAY of school. Actually, it was the nineteenth day of school, but it was my first day, and all I could think about was how happy I was that I had already missed three weeks, and that this would be the last first day in this place I would ever have. Thank God. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate school. I just wasn’t really in the mood to be lugging books around, or learning stuff that didn’t really matter to me, or even worse, being around people that I didn’t really matter to. I know, I know—I sound like a prime candidate for black fingernails and emo poetry, but I guess what I’m really trying to say is that I just wasn’t feeling too social. Scratch that—I wasn’t feeling social at all. Lockers slamming, sneakers screeching and squeaking on the floor as every kind of teenager ran through the hallways laughing and shouting on their way to class—it was all like one big nail on an even bigger chalkboard. Everyone was zipping by, bumping me, as I sort of floated through the halls like some kind of zombie.
It was like I was living in a different world where everything was backward. Ms. Harris, the principal who normally spent most of her time hiding from students in her office, offered to actually walk me to my locker. Meanwhile, kids I was cool with—at least I thought I was cool with—like James Skinner, totally ignored me. See what I mean? Backward.
The last time I saw James was during the summer when our whole class had to meet up at the school to have our senior pictures taken. Me and James joked about how much we hated taking photos, and how our crazy moms were obsessed about the whole thing. I told him how my mother begged me to smile, but I knew I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. Not because I didn’t want to, it’s just that every time a camera was pointed at me, I never knew what to do with my face. Some people can smile on cue. You say “smile,” and they go ear to ear, flashing every tooth in their mouth. And some people . . . can’t. I was one of those. So, I knew in my senior pictures I would look just like I did in my junior, sophomore, and freshman pictures—like a robot. Except this time, it would be a robot face in a cap and gown, which is even worse.
The point is, I had just seen my so-called friend James—had just joked about this corny senior picture crap with him—and now he was acting like he didn’t even know me. I guess that’s what happens when people find out your mom just died. You become invisible. At least I did. To everybody. Well, almost everybody.
“Yo, Matt, I’m so sorry about your moms, man.” Chris Hayes, my best friend, slid up behind me while I tried to stuff myself into my locker. He was one of those guys who was supercool, crazy fly, and girls had a thing for his shaved head. He’d probably be voted “Best Dressed” or something dumb like that, and if he wanted to, he’d have a fair shot at prom king. And to top it all off, he was trying hard to be sympathetic to me, his pretty normal, now really sad homeboy. I appreciated it even though it did no good. But at least he had enough heart to come up to me and say something, instead of just avoiding me, like death was some kind of disease that anyone could catch just by speaking to me. Everybody else was either staring at me or trying way too hard to not look at me at all.
“Y’know . . . Mrs. Miller was like a second mom to me, and I’m so, so sorry I couldn’t make the funeral,” Chris went on.
Well, I’m sorry you couldn’t make it either. I’m sorry I had to sit there in that church—which, by the way, had a broken air conditioner—sweating, watching all those people march down the aisle to look in my mother’s casket and whisper to themselves all this mess about how much she looked like herself, even though she didn’t. I’m sorry you weren’t there to hear the lame choir drag out, song after song. I’m sorry you weren’t there to see my dad try his best to be upbeat, cracking bad jokes in his speech, choking on his words. I’m sorry you weren’t there to watch me totally lose it and explode into tears. I’m sorry you weren’t there for me, but it doesn’t matter, because even if you were, you wouldn’t be able to feel what I feel. Nobody can. Even the preacher said so.
That’s what I wanted to say, but I didn’t because Chris didn’t deserve all that. I knew he would’ve been there if he could’ve. But he just couldn’t do it. I get that. So I turned around to look at him and said, “It’s all good, man.” I swallowed hard and reached out for a five, holding back my tears. Do. not. cry. Not in school.
Chris grabbed my hand and pulled me close for a man-hug. And right at that moment, with perfect high-school timing, Shawn Bowman ran up behind Chris, slapped him on the ass, and rambled off some dumb joke, calling us gay or whatever. And of course, after Shawn said that, the girl he was with—Michelle something—smacked him on the arm and sucked her teeth. She yanked Shawn close and whispered in his ear, and I could tell she told him my mom had just died because his face went from blue-black to—well, it stayed blue-black, but if he could’ve turned red he would’ve been a walking stop sign. Chris had turned around and glared at Shawn. He had his fists balled up and I could tell he was pissed.
“Asshole,” Chris growled. Shawn just slinked away, embarrassed, which, judging by Chris’s tone, was a good idea.
It was like all of sudden high school became . . . high school. A bunch of immature, irresponsible teens who felt invincible only because they’d never really been through nothing. The ones who had didn’t act like everybody else. Like Shante Jansen. When she got pregnant our sophomore year, she changed big-time. That baby grew her up, and certain things about high school suddenly seemed a lot less important. She just wanted to do her work and go home. No time for the extra silliness. That’s how I felt. Like all of a sudden I was way too old for high school, even though I really wasn’t. Such a strange feeling.
Luckily, I didn’t have to be in school too long. Because I had done pretty good my freshman, sophomore, and junior years, I had a short schedule and could leave at noon everyday. Of course, I was a little behind, but Ms. Harris had all the teachers create make-up assignments for me so that I could catch up on the work I missed. I wasn’t really worried too much though. School was always pretty easy for me. A lot easier than smiling, that’s for sure.
The original plan was to go to school from eight forty-five to noon, then work at the bank from one to five thirty, as a part of the work-study program. I wasn’t too gassed about working at a bank, just because it seemed like it would be boring as hell, sitting behind that thick glass counting other people’s money all day. The paycheck, however, I was definitely excited about. But because I missed the first few weeks of school, I also missed the first few weeks of work, and the bank filled my spot with another student. So I was left without a job and nothing to do after class.
My father and I talked when I got word that my spot was being given away, and he told me not to worry about it, but that I should definitely try to find some work, especially since I was going to have so much time on my hands. When he said that, my mother hadn’t passed yet. Now that she had, I really wanted to find a job, not just to keep busy, but also to try to help him out with the bills. And even though I considered myself to be pretty smart, I didn’t have any work experience, at least not any that was on the books. Sweeping Ms. Jones’s steps didn’t really count.
So I did what anybody in my position would do. I tried to get a job at a fast-food joint. Cluck Bucket. The grimiest spot in the hood. But they were known for paying pretty good. At least more than most of the other fast-food spots. Everybody said it was because it was owned by some rich dude who felt like the least he could do was pay folks enough to survive, since he was practically killing the whole hood with the food. How could something that tastes so good be so bad for you?
I had eaten there tons of times. My mother would send me out to get chicken baskets on Friday nights. We cooked Monday through Thursday and then took the weekend off. Yes, we cooked. I was pretty much my mom’s sous chef growing up, which is just a fancy way of saying I was her kitchen assistant. A little slicing, a little dicing. Some stirring, some sprinkling. What I’m getting at is, I’m kind of mean with the pot and pan. That’s another reason why Cluck Bucket seemed like an easy choice for me. I can burn, and I like the food. Especially the biscuits. My mom always said they reminded her of real country biscuits. I never had a country biscuit, but Cluck Bucket’s were incredible. As a matter of fact, Cluck Bucket’s everything was pretty good, all the way down to the sweet tea.
“Can I help whoever’s next in line?” the girl behind the register said with about as much enthusiasm as I had for anything right now—none. She wore a net on her head that made her hair look more like some kind of helmet, and a gold necklace was around her neck with a nameplate hanging from it. RENEE, it said in cursive.
I stepped forward, my sneakers making that weird sound you hear when something comes unstuck.
“Welcome to Cluck Bucket, would you like to try a combo, a special, the Cluck Deluxe, a shake, or a delicious treat from our list of desserts?” she rattled off while rolling her eyes and looking away.
“Are y’all hiring?” I asked, sort of quietly. I didn’t care if anybody knew I was trying to get a job, but at the same time, I didn’t want everybody in my business.
Renee looked at me for a second, sizing me up.
“Hold on,” she said, annoyed. She turned around and yelled to the back, but it looked like she was yelling at the chicken stacked up in that big metal bed thing it sits in. “Clara. We hiring?”
Another woman appeared from behind the metal trays. Her shirt was white instead of purple like Renee’s. She also had that hair thing around her head, but her hair was in braids and looked like snakes caught in a net.
“You looking for a job?” Clara said roughly.
She reached under the register and pulled out a piece of paper. An application.
“Fill this out over there.” She pointed toward the tables closer to the door. “And bring it back up here when you done.”
Clara then slapped a pen down on the counter and glared at me. “And don’t steal my pen.”
I sat down and started filling out the application, trying to block out the stale smell of old grease and the sounds of all the people coming in and out, yelling and cracking jokes, kids skipping school, construction workers on their lunch breaks, junkies begging for biscuits, and just about anybody else you could possibly imagine. The bell on the door kept jingling every time someone opened it, letting in the car horns and police sirens from outside. Noise from every damn where.
“What’s good, Ma?” a young guy probably my age said to Renee. “You looking good with that thing on your head,” he joked. His boys laughed.
I tried to see her reaction, but I couldn’t because he was standing in front of her. But I could hear her.
“Yeah, whatever. What you want, man?”
The guy rocked left to right and adjusted the hat on his head, and his crotch.
“What’s good with your number?” he said, slick.
“Nope. But how about some food,” Renee said pretty flat. I’m sure she got this kind of crap all the time. Some fool crackin’ slick in front of his friends. I always wondered if this kind of game worked. Like, does “What’s good with your number” really bag the ladies? Doubt it.
“A’ight, a’ight, a’ight, whatever. Just let me get a Deluxe.”
“No Deluxes. All out.”
“Damn, a’ight. Well, let me get Five Cluck Strips.”
“Come on, really?”
“A’ight well, just give me a three-piece meal. I know you got chicken.” The guy laughed and shook his head, disappointed.
At this point he moved to the side, just enough for me to see Renee. She turned around and looked at all the chicken in the hot bed. There must’ve been like sixty pieces in there. Then she turned back around to the dude.
“All out. No more chicken.”
“It’s chicken right there! What you talkin’ about?”
The boy stood there stunned.
Renee smirked and lifted her hands to her face, her fingers forming a pretend camera. She acted like she was taking a picture. “Snapshot!” she shouted. Then Renee looked at the make-believe camera as if she was checking the photo—guess it was an invisible digital—and teased, “Yikes, not your best face.”
The dude’s boys started laughing at him, and before he could say anything back, Renee said, “Next in line, please!”
Then he got all sensitive and cussed Renee up and down, throwing the typical “You ain’t even that pretty anyway!” at her, bumping tables and chairs as he walked out. His boys trailed behind him like a litter of puppies. I looked down at my application as they were leaving. Guys like that always try to mess with somebody else to make them feel better, and I just wasn’t in the mood.
Everyone else in line laughed, though. Especially when the next guy ordered fifty pieces of chicken and got every piece. Apparently, that’s why she really couldn’t sell that jerk the chicken. It was already spoken for.
“Thank you so much, love. I already have it squared with Clara,” the man who ordered all the chicken said.
“No prob, Mr. Ray.”
Mr. Ray? I looked up, and sure enough, it was Mr. Willie Ray standing there while Renee piled fried chicken into cardboard buckets.
Mr. Ray was a tall stick of a man who everyone in the neighborhood knew for two reasons. The first is, he was in the funeral business. A mortician. He owned Ray’s Funeral Home after inheriting it from his father. It’s weird to say, but most of the teenagers and old folks who’ve died around here have passed through Willie Ray’s door.
The other thing everyone knows him for is, well, cancer. Mr. Ray beat it twice, and the only reason everybody knows that is because after he beat it the second time, he basically became, like, a Jehovah’s Witness for cancer, knocking on doors and passing out pamphlets. He swears the only reason God spared his life twice is so that he could spread the word about the illness, as if nobody knew what it was. My mother used to always joke with him and say, “Willie, God saved you just so you could torture the hell outta the rest of us? That don’t make no sense.” He never got upset with her. He just used to laugh and shake his head while heading on to the next house.
“Mr. Ray?” I called out.
“Matthew, I didn’t see you sitting there. How are you?” he said, walking toward me with his familiar limp.
“I’m okay.” I stood and shook his hand. “What’s with all the chicken?”
“Man, it’s a funeral. Well, really it’s a repast. They didn’t have anyone to cater it, so they paid the funeral home extra for us to take care of the accommodations. So we always just come down here and get the chicken. It’s easy and everybody likes it,” he explained. “What you up to?”
“Just trying to get a job.” I pointed to the application that I had literally only filled out my name on, so far.
Mr. Ray stood there for a second and gave me a once-over, as if he was upset that I was trying to work in Cluck Bucket. As far as I was concerned, it was an honest gig. I figured it was probably tough at times, but still, honest. Plus, I figured I could maybe learn what the secret to some of that fried deliciousness was so that I could take it back to my own kitchen. Maybe make those biscuits for me and my dad one day.
“Matthew, if you work here, you’ll never be able to eat here again,” he finally joked.
I didn’t really think that was true. I mean, certain things you just never get tired of. Cluck Bucket, for me, was definitely one. That’s like saying that if I would’ve gotten that job working at the bank, I would’ve eventually gotten sick of money. Yeah, right. Not that Mr. Ray was wrong. I just couldn’t see it. But I didn’t say nothing. Just shrugged.
“Listen. Your mother was a friend of mine. And your father still is. If you need a job, I’ll pay you a couple of bucks to help me out down at the funeral home. I mean, I heard they pay pretty good in this crap shack, but I’m sure I can get close, and you won’t have to come home smelling like deep-fried fat every night, or put up with these knuckleheads. What you think?” Mr. Ray inched his jacket sleeve up just enough to see his watch, which he twisted around so that the gold face was on the top of his wrist. “Unless,” he said low, his eyes still on the time, “you got a thing for hairnets.”
Funny. Real funny.
I thought for a moment. Mr. Ray was definitely a friend of my folks. He was the one who talked to my mother about the chemotherapy, and what that would be like. He said he didn’t know much about breast cancer, but he did know that ice cream is the secret to feeling better when the treatment makes you feel sick. As a matter of fact, Mr. Ray was there the day my mom was taken to the hospital, the day she left home for good. He helped my father get her down the steps because she refused to let the EMT guys put her on a stretcher.
“I ain’t no princess and I ain’t no baby, so I don’t need to be carried nowhere,” she had snapped as Dad and Mr. Ray held her up by her arms and eased her down the stoop, one painful step at a time.
Dad cracked a joke about her being a queen. “Damn right!” she replied, and Mr. Ray was right there to cosign.
“The queen of your house, this block, Bed-Stuy—hell, Daisy, you the queen of all of Brooklyn!” Mr. Ray joked. “And guess what? Your throne will be right here waiting for you when you come home.”
She never came home, but we appreciated Mr. Ray’s positivity. He was always that way—a good guy. And even though I trusted him, did I really want to work at the funeral home with him? I mean, it wasn’t him I was worried about. It was just the whole death thing, and the fact that I would have to be around sad people all the time. Losing my mom was already damn near too much for me to deal with, so being around a bunch of strangers dealing with the same crap just seemed like hell.
But the way Mr. Ray was talking, hell paid pretty good. And even though I didn’t buy the whole “You wont be able to eat here” crap, I didn’t want to risk it. But still, I didn’t know if I could really do it. A funeral home?
“Thanks Mr. Ray,” I said, tapping the ink pen on the application. “But I don’t think I can do that. It’s just . . . I just . . .” I struggled to explain why, but I could tell by the way he looked at me that I didn’t really have to.
“No need to explain, son,” he said, putting his hand up. “Trust me, I get it.”
I looked down at the application, embarrassed. Even though Mr. Ray said he understood where I was coming from, I still felt a little stupid turning down his offer when the only other option was to work in a grimy chicken spot. But on the other hand, it just didn’t seem like a good idea to take a job somewhere where I’d have to relive my mom’s funeral everyday. Like being paid to replay the worst day of my life over and over again.
Mr. Ray put his hand on my shoulder. “Just let me know if you change your mind.” I didn’t look up. I just nodded and started filling out the address line, signing myself up for fry-duty. But it was either that or die-duty. Lose-lose.
As soon as Mr. Ray turned around to walk back toward the counter, the door swung open and a young girl came rushing in, her hand pressed tight to her mouth, her cheeks bulging from her face. And before she could get to the bathroom—hell, before she could even get all the way inside—she spewed red, lumpy slime all over the already sticky floor. It looked like that old-lady pudding. What’s it called? Tapioca? Yeah. It was like tapioca. But red. And if there’s one thing I just can’t deal with, it’s puke. Two things, really—tapioca and puke. I just can’t. Everything about throw-up is gross. The way it looks, the way it smells, the way it sounds. All of it. Straight-up nasty. So when this girl came in chucking her lunch, I sprung from my chair and damn near jumped on Mr. Ray. I literally almost knocked him over.
“What the—” Mr. Ray whipped around after hearing the belching and hacking sound of spit-up, along with my chair sliding back from the under the table and my footsteps running up on him. “Clara!” he shouted. “Clara! You got a situation out here!”
I stood next to Mr. Ray, but faced the opposite way. I looked straight ahead at Renee and the other customers who were also grossed out, while Mr. Ray focused on the sick kid, who I could hear heaving.
Renee stretched her neck to see what was happening, and once she saw the mess, she just tightened her lips and shook her head. Like this was normal. “Clara, we need a clean-up,” she said in a bored voice.
“Clara!” Mr. Ray barked again.
“I’m coming, I’m coming!” Clara yelped. She came through a door on the side of the kitchen, rolling a yellow mop bucket. A guy followed behind her with what looked like a bag of sand and one of those big orange cones.
“Jesus,” Clara said, passing me. I locked my eyes on the chicken. I couldn’t stand to see the puke, because if I had seen it, they’d have had to clean up two tapiocas. “Put that stuff down and go get her some water,” Clara said to the guy with the sand.
The dude ran back toward the kitchen and in a flash came back with a cup of water.
“Sit down,” Clara said to the girl.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” the girl cried over and over again, and I could tell she was lifting the cup to her mouth because her voice changed. “I’m so sorry. I just . . . couldn’t make it to the bathroom.” She sounded embarrassed, and to be honest, I was pretty embarrassed too. I mean, I was already feeling a way when I turned down the job Mr. Ray offered me, but now I was visibly scared of upchuck and I just knew the girl at the register was looking at me act like a pussy. So, yeah—pretty embarrassed.
“Next in line!” Renee called. Turns out she wasn’t paying me no mind. She wasn’t tripping about anything. For her this was just another day at the job. I didn’t know how anyone could still have an appetite, especially since the whole place smelled like old, wet socks now, but people went on ordering.
Mr. Ray faced the front of the restaurant and put his arm around me. “All good, Matthew,” he said. “Go ahead and finish up your application. Hell, they should hire you just for having to endure that!” He chuckled to himself and moved toward the register.
“Wait. Mr. Ray.” I reached out and grabbed his arm. He turned back toward me. “Will I . . . uh . . . will I have to touch dead people?” Honest question.
He crossed his arms. “Do you want to?”
I weighed my options. Funerals suck. The possibility of not being able to eat my favorite fast food, dealing with random crazies who come in and talk trash, and mopping up throw-up really, really sucks.
“Okay,” I said to Mr. Ray.
Mr. Ray smiled. “Okay,” he said with a nod. “C’mon, you can start right now.”
I followed him up to the register. I set Clara’s pen on the counter while Mr. Ray reached in his suit jacket and pulled out a few cancer pamphlets and left them in front of Renee’s register, like they were some kind of tip or something.
“Give these to your grandma,” he said while we gathered up all the buckets of chicken.
“You got it,” Renee said nicely as we headed toward the door. I held my breath as me and Mr. Ray tiptoed over the pile of sand that covered whatever was left of the vomit, leaving the application with only my name and half of my address on the table.
“So, who’s funeral is it up there?” I asked Mr. Ray as we laid the chicken out on platters. The repast (I actually didn’t know that’s what they’re called, but it’s the dinner after the funeral—the repast) was happening in the basement of the funeral home, and the actual service was going on upstairs. The only reason I knew that some funerals happen in the funeral home is because we used to always see people standing outside of Ray’s dressed in all black, hugging, just like they do at funerals that happen at churches. The good thing about Ray’s Funeral Home is, at least the AC worked.
“You know Rhonda Jameson?” Mr. Ray asked.
He placed a breast next to a leg.
“Ms. Jameson died?”
“No. Ms. Jameson is fine. Her father passed last week.”
“Oh,” I said. “Well, at least she had him for a long time.”
“Yeah.” Still, he shook his head. “But it never gets any easier.”
Mr. Ray put these big, really nice bowls on the table and was scooping out spoonfuls of canned greens. I have to admit, the food area looked pretty good. He had tablecloths down and fake flowers on the tables (I hate real flowers, but I’ll get to that), and had me set up the cushioned fold-up chairs instead of the regular, hard-butt ones.
After all the food was out and all the tables were set, there really wasn’t much else to do, but I still didn’t want to go home yet. At the same time I also hoped Mr. Ray didn’t start digging into how I was feeling and all that. I mean, I know people mean well when they ask those kinds of questions, but at the end of the day, they are stupid questions. How am I feeling? Well, let me think. My mother’s funeral was a couple days ago, so I damn sure ain’t happy.
Lucky for me, Mr. Ray didn’t ask anything like that. He actually didn’t say nothing about my mother at all. Instead he started talking about what he was like when he was my age.
“Man,” Mr. Ray said with a sigh, “you better than I was. You responsible, y’know?” He leaned against the wall and crossed his ankles.
“I guess,” I said, unsure of where this conversation was going.
“I mean, I wasn’t thinking about no job or nothing like that. I was thinking about one thing only—skirts.”
“You were thinking about wearing skirts?” I asked, shocked.
“No, man! I didn’t mean”—his raspy voice sounded even more scratchy when he got excited—“I mean girls, man. Skirts. We were thinking about girls. Like your buddy, Chris.”
Mr. Ray seemed disappointed that I didn’t pick up on his old-school slang.
“Oh.” I smirked. Chris definitely thought about girls. “Well, I think about them too. A lot. I just also think about other stuff, I guess.” I didn’t really see the big deal in that. Girls are great. But so is graduating from high school and leaving it behind. Forever. Seemed pretty basic to me.
“And that’s why you’re different. Man, me and my brother Robbie done wrecked many a car, taking our eyes off the road to check out some lady’s hind-parts.”
Hind-parts? I snickered and Mr. Ray started laughing too. He probably thought I was laughing at him and his brother, but what it really was, was the word hind-parts. Such an old-people word.
The whole time we talked I could hear the people upstairs moving around. I couldn’t make out voices, but every footstep came through. I wondered what the people at Mr. Jameson’s funeral were doing. If they were laughing or crying, or both. If someone was whispering stupid comments to the person next to them about how good Mr. Jameson looked dead. If Ms. Jameson was exploding. Like I did.
“Mr. Ray, can I ask you something?”
“Of course.” I could tell he thought I was going to ask him something about girls by the way he crossed his legs the other way.
But I didn’t.
“Can I go up there?”
“Where?” he asked, confused.
I pointed up. “Up there? To the funeral. Just for a second.”
“Why?” He cocked his head slightly to the side.
I just shrugged. I couldn’t tell him why because I’m not sure I really knew why at the time. I just all of a sudden wanted to. I needed to.
Mr. Ray looked at me for a few seconds, hard. Then he sucked his teeth. “Come here, Matthew,” he said, taking off his suit jacket. “If you gonna go up there, be respectful.” He held the coat open so I could slip my arms in. “And sit in the back.”
THE FUNERAL OF CLARK “SPEED-O” JAMESON
Upstairs, the funeral home was pretty much the same as downstairs, except much darker and no tables. Just rows of padded fold-ups and a wooden podium in the front. The lights were dimmed, which was very different from the bright lights in the church at my mother’s funeral. The darkness definitely made it seem more serious. Plus it hid you better in case you exploded.
Robbie Ray, Mr. Ray’s younger brother, was the MC for the funeral, kind of like how the preacher is when you have one at a church. But Robbie Ray wasn’t no preacher. As a matter of fact, he was pretty much still the same man who was crashing cars looking at “hind-parts” when he was younger, except now he was older. But he still looked young. Way younger than Mr. Ray. And he was always dressed like he was looking for a date. Tight suits with his shirt always unbuttoned down to the middle of his chest like we live on some island or something. He always wore gold watches, gold chains, had a gold slug in the front of his mouth, and wore a gold nugget ring on his pinky. My mother used to always clown him, saying he was stuck somewhere between 1970 and outer space.
“And now we’re going to have a few words from some of Mr. Jameson’s friends,” Robbie said, his voice deep like a late-night radio show host’s. Sometimes I thought he was making it that way on purpose, just to go with his whole style. But I could never tell for sure.
He moved his finger over the program to make sure he called the right name. “Mr. McCray?”
I slipped into a seat in the back like Mr. Ray told me. I felt a little silly, not because I was at a random funeral, but because my arms looked like tentacles in Mr. Ray’s huge suit jacket. It fit me okay in the shoulders because Mr. Ray was skinny, but the sleeves were way too long. I kept pulling them up to my wrist, and tried to keep my fingers spread out so they wouldn’t slide back down.
Next to me was an old lady dressed in a purple skirt and a black and purple polka-dot shirt. Who said you had to wear all black to a funeral, I thought as I looked down at my blue jeans and green and brown Nikes. I glanced over at her and nodded. She gave me an awkward look. At first I thought maybe she knew I didn’t belong there. But then she kept wiggling her nose like she was going to sneeze, so I figured it was all the cologne coming from Mr. Ray’s suit coat. I don’t know what it is about old men and cologne. My mother used to say that when men get old they think anything that smells bad can kill germs better than soap and hot water, so they either bathe in liquor or cologne. I wanted to lean over to that old lady and tell her that I was sorry for the stench and that I hoped it didn’t cause her more grief than she was already feeling. But I didn’t. I just made whatever face I thought looked like it was saying I was sorry, and nodded my head to her.
“Afternoon, afternoon,” a mumble came over the speakers. “I’m A. J. McCrary. Not McCray. McCrary.” The old, bent-over man peered at Robbie Ray for messing up his name.
“Anyway, y’all know how Clark got the name Speed-O?” A. J. McCrary leaned on the podium and spoke into the mic. His face looked like leather, and his eyes were big and glassy. He only had white hair on the sides of his head, almost like he was wearing ear muffs made of pure cotton.
“Y’all wanna know?” he asked again, his voice pitchy and weird like all the teeth in his mouth were loose.
Some people in the crowd grunted, a few others shouted, “Tell it!”
“Oh, I’m a tell it,” he said, adjusting the microphone.
“One time, a long time ago when we was kids, there used to be this old doughnut shop over on DeKalb all the cops used to hang at. So we outside of there, and Clark starts talking to me about the pig this and the pig that, and that he been reading black newspapers and checkin’ what Malcolm X been saying up in Harlem. This was the sixties, so you know how it was. ’Fros, people changing their names and all that.”
The older people in the crowd nodded their heads in agreement. I glanced over at the lady next to me and imagined her with an afro. Yikes.
“So Clark kicking all this revolution stuff, and I told him, ‘Man you ain’t ’bout nothin’. You just yappin’ your trap. But you ain’t gonna do a”—the old man caught himself about to cuss—“a daggone thing.”
People started giggling.
“He said, ‘Oh, yeah? Watch this.’ Next thing I know this fool come running out the doughnut shop with one doughnut in his hand and one in his mouth, and a young white cop running behind him hollerin’ ’bout his doughnut gettin’ stolen. Can you imagine that? A cop yellin’ out, ‘Thief, thief !’”
Everybody started laughing at this crazy story. Even me.
“I didn’t see him for a few days after that,” Mr. McCrary continued, “but when I did, he told me he never got caught! And to prove it, he told me he had the other doughnut in his house for me. He said Brother Malcolm talked about whatever you do for yo’self, you do for your brother. So the other doughnut was mine. I couldn’t believe it—one, because that’s crazy; two, because he risked his life over some doughnuts; and three, because he actually outran the police! You know how fast you gotta be to get away from the cops . . . on foot? Pretty damn”—he caught himself again—“daggone fast! So I started calling him Speed-O, and it stuck.”
He laughed and began coughing harshly into the mic, digging into his back pocket for a handkerchief to spit in. Robbie Ray reached out for him to help him to his seat, though Mr. McCrary didn’t look like he was quite ready to sit down. But realizing that his time was up, he looked back into the crowd and pressed his lips to the mic as if he was kissing it.
“We’ll miss him, and many blessings to his family. Thank you,” he added quickly, his voice now way too loud, popping through the speakers.
Everybody shook their heads, confirming that Mr. Jameson was that kind of guy.
Robbie Ray came bopping back up to the mic to introduce the next speaker. I kept feeling something sticking me in my chest, so I reached my hand into the jacket to see what kept poking me. Of course, not thinking, I pulled out what had to be at least ten cancer pamphlets. For a moment I forgot whose jacket I had on. The lady next to me shot her eyes over at me. I just made the weird robot face I make when I’m taking pictures—big eyes, tight lips—and tried to stuff the pamphlets back in the pocket as quickly as possible. Especially since I didn’t know what Mr. Jameson died of. Might’ve been cancer. That would’ve been awkward.
“Mr. Wallace,” Robbie said next in his weird, fake sexy voice.
A giant rose from the second row. Seriously, the biggest man I’ve ever seen in real life. His head was the size of a basketball, and his back was like a king-size mattress. Except made of bricks.
“Good afternoon,” the giant said.
I tried not to laugh, but I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. This humongous monster of a man had the voice of a six-year-old. High, squeaky. Like, cute. I could hear that weird sound when you try to hold in a laugh, but a little bit leaks out—like a mouth fart—happening all over the church. People were trying not to crack up, but his voice made it so hard.
“Um, my name is Mouse,” he said, leaning down to get to the microphone. His hands, the size of oven mittens, were gripping the sides of the wooden podium. He could’ve ripped it apart like nothing if he wanted to.
“And Speed-O trained me when I first got the job with the trucking company. We worked together for a long time. Had a lot of fun. A lot of laughs.” Mouse smiled, flashing a big gap in his two front teeth, as if he was suddenly reminiscing in his mind about some of those moments.
“Anybody who knew Speed-O knows he loved to tell stories, and the crazy thing was, you never knew if the stories were true or not. You knew he wasn’t no liar, at least he ain’t seem like one. But some of the stories were just so ridiculous.” Mouse laughed a silly laugh. It sounded like a never-ending hiccup.
“Like this one time, we riding through Arizona on a five-day delivery. I think it was August—the heat was kicking something terrible. Brooklyn summer ain’t got nothing on Arizona.” He pretended to wipe sweat from his face. “So we pull up to this gas station, some random spot off the map. And Speed-O get to talking about how the last time he had been down in Arizona he stopped at that exact same gas station, and that it was so hot last time that he seen a horse leaning up against the ice chest—you know those old ice chests that sit outside of some stores? One of them. He said the horse was leaning with all four of his legs crossed at the ankle and was panting like a dog. All four legs! Then he said that somebody slipped a cigarette in the horse’s mouth to smoke because the dang horse looked so stressed out by the heat.”
The room broke out in laughter.
“Shoot, so I asked him,” Mouse continued. “I said, ‘Speed-O, you sure the heat just wasn’t getting to you, and you was seeing things?’ You know what he said? He said, ‘Nope. I know it was real, because I was the one who lit the horse’s cigarette!’”
The room erupted again. People squealed, rocking back and forth, wiping tears from their eyes. I mean, not only was the story hilarious, but the fact that the huge guy telling it sounded like a little kid made it even better. I looked over at the old lady next to me and she was chuckling. She glanced at me and saw that I was laughing too, and nodded. Everyone was nudging each other and I could tell that some of the other folks in the room had heard that story before. And in a weird way, I kind of felt like I knew Mr. Jameson, at least for that moment.
“He was so serious. He never ever said he was kidding or even cracked a smile. He just told the story while lighting a smoke and unwrapping a honey bun, which was his favorite road snack. He was a good friend. I’m gonna miss him a lot, but I’m glad I got to know him.”
Mouse maneuvered his way back to his seat, bumping just about everything and everyone. While most people were still laughing, Ms. Jameson stepped up to the mic.
“My name is Rhonda Jameson.” She stood there a moment and waited for the crowd to quiet down. “Clark, or Speed-O as most of you knew him, was—is my father.”
Ms. Jameson looked tired, but was still upbeat. It definitely seemed to be a pretty cool funeral from what I could tell. Nothing like my mom’s.
“I just want to say thank you to everyone for coming out. My father would be so thrilled to know that you came to say your final good-byes.” And just like that, her eyes started to swell and fill with tears.
“I’m not gonna cry,” she whispered to herself, taking deep breaths. “He would’ve wanted you to know that he did everything his way. He was honest, his way.” Everyone laughed lowly as Ms. Jameson shot a wink to Mouse, who flashed his gappy grin. “He was loyal, his way.” Now she nodded to Mr. McCrary.
“But most importantly, he loved, his way,” she said, her face starting to melt as the water rose up in her eyes. “He loved . . . ,” she started, but couldn’t get it out. The breakdown was coming, and there was no stopping it.
I sat in my seat, suddenly anxious. My stomach started to feel weird, and strangely I felt a little desperate to see what was going to happen next. Would she cry? Would she run out? Would she pass out? It wasn’t like I was going to be happy to see Ms. Jameson, a lady I had known most of my life from the neighborhood, sad. But I wanted to see if I could tell if she was feeling what I had been feeling.
“He loved . . .” Her voice fluttered. “I’m sorry. I just . . . I just . . .” She turned away from the mic and looked to her left as if she was looking for someone to help her, but no one was there. She started shaking and biting her bottom lip hard enough to draw blood. A few people in the crowd shouted, “It’s okay!” But it really wasn’t. I knew that and she knew that, more than anyone else in the room. Robbie Ray came over to help her, and he held her close while she stumbled and wept through the rest of her speech. After that—and this may sound weird—I felt satisfied.
I didn’t stay for the repast, which would pretty much become tradition. Funerals only. Nothing else. I gave Mr. Ray back his funky coat, and told him that I needed to head home.
“Homework?” he asked, like an old man.
“Yeah, unfortunately,” I lied. I didn’t have any homework. I just didn’t want to be around when people started introducing themselves and talking about how they knew Mr. Jameson. It would’ve been pretty awkward if his loved ones found out that I actually never met the guy. That we never shared a joke or advice or nothing like that. That I was just kind of hanging out watching the funeral like it was a pickup game at the park, or some kind of reality TV show. Crashing Caskets.
“Yeah, you a different one, a’ight. Nothing like how me and Robbie was,” Mr. Ray said again, slipping his arm back into his suit jacket. “You go ’head on. We’ll meet back here tomorrow after school is through.”
I nodded. “I’ll be here.”
The Boy in the Black Suit
Matt wears a black suit every day. No, not because his mom died—although she did, and it sucks. But he wears the suit for his gig at the local funeral home, which pays way better than the Cluck Bucket, and he needs the income since his dad can’t handle the bills (or anything, really) on his own. So while Dad’s snagging bottles of whiskey, Matt’s snagging fifteen bucks an hour. Not bad. But everything else? Not good. Then Matt meets Lovey. Crazy name, and she’s been through more crazy stuff than he can imagine. Yet Lovey never cries. She’s tough. Really tough. Tough in the way Matt wishes he could be. Which is maybe why he’s drawn to her, and definitely why he can’t seem to shake her. Because there’s nothing more hopeful than finding a person who understands your loneliness—and who can maybe even help take it away.
- Atheneum Books for Young Readers |
- 272 pages |
- ISBN 9781442459502 |
- January 2015 |
- Grades 7 and up |
- Lexile HL760L