- Everyone Laughs
My cousin Pop says, “We have a lot of orders to fill.”
We’re already missing two afternoon cartoons. Granddad’s kitchen is full of creepy crawlers and we’re making more from a machine. It’s then I see a lanky figure come in the apartment. It’s Mills, Pop’s albino friend. His hands are full of more orders from spreading word all day. My intention is to ignore him. But their exchange holds my eyes. Pop says, just to him, “You’re the man.”
I keep pouring the plastigoop liquid into the Creepy Crawler Machine, but I’m able to see Pop hand Mills a crisp five-dollar bill. Now, Mills didn’t make any creepy crawlers, so I’m seeing what would take me five hours. They’re both sixth-graders. We all make money from the orange and green machine. But he’s not family.
I’m watching with anger and frustration when Mills farewells Pop. They could have read my face if they’d have looked, but I hear Pop lock the door. Pop returns, staring at the orders spread across the kitchen table. At least I respect his hustle. Then he’s working beside me. Afterward, I find words to correct the wrong. We argue. In school, being teased is no longer acceptable. Pop has an epiphany and hands me a dollar bill. Then he says, “Happy now?”
I struggle to hide my smile.
The afternoon goes by like this. Granddad’s watching us, in his room asleep. Our mothers come; they’re losing to work or sleep—no, both—and soon we leave. Creepy crawlers are moving everywhere in Public School 260. They sell quick, pushing Pop’s ambition to the limit and pressing my new clothes back into my imagination. Teasing spares no one, as if it’s a hurricane [End Page 123] designed to leave a mark that’ll last for years. Jokes come flying. I’m doing my school work, hoping they miss.
When the jokes finish, everyone’s laughing. I have on Pop’s hand-me-down clothes but was spared. Ama, a new fourth-grader, has tears running down her face. Judgment is on her skin. She is crucified. Her being Ghanaian was a blackness we—Breukelen Project kids—couldn’t see. Was I still the black boy who swelled with black pride? Poor Ama. If not her, then who? If not today, then when?
Tomorrow’s another day sounds different when Granddad says it. At school, this is a lesson that can’t be skipped, but now I’m here wishing not to have to learn at all. During the teasing lesson, a fight could happen. Sometimes the teaser still wins. We lose a sense of right and wrong. And teachers do nothing.
Later I find hope playing sports, out of necessity. It’s not like video games. Select your opponent. Alter the difficulty. Control. The best players select teams. Sha-sha and Omar. Omar points to Macho, a new kid from Granddad’s building. Sha-sha points to me. I see they’re picking to play for keeps. This game is for the school’s basketball team.
It’s going, like more than a period, Sha-sha and Omar emulating their favorite players: Shaquille O’Neal and Kevin Garnett. The ball never sees me until I’m hanging under the rim, back to back against Macho. The ball bounces off the backboard ready to greet me.
I think, I’ll score this time. Macho doesn’t have anything at stake. But he has heart, despite being born with two holes in it. In this way, the game ends.
Creepy Crawlers are in the lunch room. They have girls on edge the way the basketball roster posted on the wall has me. When I see Macho’s face glow, I know it’s bad news. He has my spot.
I confront the gym teacher, who doubles as a lunchroom monitor. “He out-hustles you,” he says. Girls begin screaming and knocking over food trays. I shake my head. You must not show defeat. You must find another way.