Daddy lost his job, Momma got lupus, and the rent is due.
“Keep your hands off my baby!” Momma say to me. My little sister, Ladybug, on the floor crying, her eyes all glassy with tears falling out them and dried boogers in the corners, her nose running. She lay there kicking and screaming in pink corduroy overalls that got one strap hanging off and the button about to slip through the hole of the other strap.
They don’t know how they go pay the rent but Daddy out looking. My momma, daddy, brother, sister and I live on 1510 W. 14th place in apartment 308. It is a fifteenth story project. We moved here after momma got sick. Now, Momma stare me down. “Didn’t I tell you to leave her alone? Give it back to her! I am not going to tell you that again, Rochelle!”
My kaleidoscope. I saw it first and Ladybug knows I did. I hold my kaleidoscope in my hands tight, looking at it. It’s dark blue with yellow stars all over. “You don’t take her stuff!” my Momma say, waging her finger at me with her other hand on her hip. My stuff. Ladybug just lie there screaming loud and looking at my kaleidoscope, kicking. “That is not yours!” my Momma say.
When Momma done, I’m going to box Ladybug because she always crying about something for no reason. I walk over to the couch and sit down, still holding the kaleidoscope tight, with my head down. “Now, give it back to her!” I give it back to Ladybug real slow. She takes it and wipes her eyes with the back of her hand, her hair in brands all over her head. Some coming loose ‘cause Momma need to do them again.
“I want you to stop making her cry, Rochelle! You hear me?”
When she makes me cry, Momma don’t say nothing. Just let me cry and say nothing.
“Jaden!” Momma yells. She wearing a black dress and no shoes, fixing her hair her with one hand and pulling down the side of the too tight dress with her other hand. Her bare feet, sticky with sweat, slap against the floor loud as she limp around.
“Yes, Momma!” Jaden yells from way in the washroom. Ladybug playing with my kaleidoscope like it’s hers. I saw it first.
“Give it to me. Give me my toy,” I whisper to Ladybug, through clenched teeth. Ladybug act like she don’t hear me. She know she can hear me. “I said, give me my toy. I know you hear me. I know you do. Give it to me.”
Jaden walks out of the washroom, hands dripping wet.
“Give it to me,” I say again. She sits on the floor with her legs folded, holding my kaleidoscope in her hand and looking at it like it’s hers, tears drying on her face.
“Fix your shirt, Jaden,” Momma say because his shirt sticks out of his pants. Jaden wipes his hands on his pants then fixes his shirt.
“I need you to find as many of my purses as you can and bring them into the living room,” Momma say to Jaden. She looks at me. “Rochelle, you help your brother look for mommy’s purses,” she say to me. I nod. Jaden and I run into my Momma’s and Daddy’s room, which is small and has marooned walls and folded cloths on the tops of dressers, chairs and the foot of Momma’s and Daddy’s bed.
“I got this one!” I say and grab a big purse.
“That’s not a purse, that’s a book bag,” Jaden say, and take it and put it back. “A purse look like this,” he say and show me what he say it is a purse, a black bag with a lot of pockets and long strap.
“Ok,” I say, and look for anything that look like that. We grab a lot of them, put them on our arms, and run into the living room. Ladybug still got my kaleidoscope. She holding it, looking all crazy, her eyes bright and tired.
“Momma look at me” I say and twirl my arms real fast. The purses spin on my arms like hula-hoops.
Jaden hold out his arms too. “Here they go, Momma,” he say like he did all the work.
“Look at this!” I say and put a huge orange purse in my Momma’s face. She put her hand up because it almost bop her on her nose.
“Good you two,” Momma say smiling. First time she smiled all day. “Thank you both, you found so many,” she say. We put the purses on the couch and Momma starts looking in them, taking out, mainly, paper and balled up pieces of tissue with makeup stains on them. She takes out a peppermint. Jaden look at it.
“Can I have that momma!” I say pointing to the peppermint, rocking from side to side on the edges of my shoes.
“I was going to ask for it” Jaden say, fold his arms, turn, sit down on the couch real hard and poke out his lips, his eyes low and bushy eyebrows bouncing and twitching. People say he got bushy eyebrows like Daddy. Daddy eyebrows bushy and he got a lot of muscles. When Jaden walk, people say he made up like my daddy, but he ain’t. They say me and Ladybug look like Momma. Momma short, skinny and always fussing. That’s what my grandmomma say.
“Wait until I find another one and then you will both have one,” Momma say and look over at Ladybug who sleep on the couch, her leg hanging off a little. Momma continue searching the pockets of one of the purses. She finds, an old lottery ticket, a whole lot of receipts, little bottles of lotions, crumbs, a broken cigarette from the time she use to smoke, a flat mushed piece of gum that’s in some green shinny paper, and some coupons. “Damn,” Momma say and shake her head. “Sorry kids,” she say, wipe her face, and picks up another purse.
“We’ll pay you right back,” Momma, red veins in her eyes and her hair sticking up, say in the kitchen on the phone smoking that broken cigarette she found in that purse. The long phone cord stretch from the living room into the kitchen. The living room couch and floor has a lot of purses tuned inside out on them. There are also a lot of small pieces of papers, some makeup, a pen, and an unopened tampon on the floor beside the couch leg.
On the coffee table there is some money under a rock. Momma, talking to herself, smoothed the bills out and counted thirty-three dollars and twenty-two cent. Now, she put the cigarette on the ashtray and twirl and curl the phone cord through her fingers as she listen. On the kitchen counter by her is a list of names. Some of the names are crossed off.
“I understand,” my Momma say, pick up and take another long puff of the cigarette. She puff out and smoke stand still and rest on her lips. “Well, take care,” Momma say, patting the ashes off the cigarette into the ashtray with her finger. She cross a name off the list, stare at the next name for a long time, and dial the number. She close her eyes. “Hi,” she say, twirling the cord in her fingers again – about to break it. “How are you? … I could be better . That’s why I am calling . We need a loan, Momma,” my Momma say.
She told Daddy she was not gone call Grandma. “I know dad just died,” she says now. She sits in a chair and bites her fingernails. “Okay, I understand … please don’t apologize … soon. We’ll come and see you soon…. I love you too, Momma,” she say, hang up, puts her hands over her eyes, hold them there, and slides them to her mouth. Then, rest her elbow, which has a rash on it that goes up her arm, on the table with her chin in her hand, and stare at the cigarette that’s now in the ashtray. The flame burn bright and disappear.
Someone bangs on the door like they gone break it down. Momma run from the back to the front, Jaden and me stand still, and Ladybug crawl over and pick up my kaleidoscope again. The person bang again even harder, making the door shake.
“Who is it?” Momma say and look out the peephole.
“Richard Samson,” a voice say from the other side of the door. He our building Manager. Every month he comes to all the apartments and collect the rent of the people who ain’t take it to his office.
“Y’all be quiet,” Momma whisper. With her hand on the doorknob, she looks around the house to make sure everything is okay. She look at the laundry towels on the arm of the couch and some throw-pillows on the floor. “Jaden pick up this stuff. Make sure you get those pillows,” she whispers, pointing to the pillows, nervous.
She opens the door and Mr. Samson, a little chubby white man with sweaty black hair that always stick to his forehead, stands there looking at Momma like he out of breath. He wearing a brown jacket that’s open, a too‑tight white dress shirt and a too‑tight tie that looks like it’s choking what supposed to be a neck – because it looks like he don’t really have no neck. He ain’t wearing no t-shirt underneath his shirt ‘cause we can see his bare chest between them buttons. Jaden on his knees, picking up the pillows.
“Hi, Mr. Samson, come in,” Momma say and step aside for him to walk in, but he just stand there. “Come in, please,” she ask him again.
“It’s the third. Come by to pick up the rent. The rent was due on the first.”
“I know, Mr. Samson. I have been trying to call you.”
He rolls his eyes, sighs, and gives Momma a stern stare. “Do you have the rent?” he finally says.
“That is what I was trying to call you about.”
Jaden jumps and stops picking up the pillows. He looks at Momma. Still on his knees. A green pillow on his lap. Me and Ladybug watch too – Ladybug don’t really know what she watching. She just looked up ‘cause he screamed.
“We don’t have it right now, Mr. Samson. Stokely lost his job.” Momma say. Smirking mad, Mr. Samson puts his hands in the pockets of his jacket and looks at Momma. Momma looks and nervously picks her nails. “He lost it and things have just been a little …,” she say.
“I don’t want to hear it! I don’t want to hear it!” He looks around. Then, at his watch. “When will you have it?” he say, his words hot and heavy, burning the air.
Momma looks at him. Then down.
“Mr. Samson.” Momma say.
“You have until tomorrow,” he say and looks at his watch again. “Same time, 3:30; I will be here tomorrow at 3:30,” he say, his face red, his teeth showing in full. Slightly yellowish. Dried white and flaky spit on the corners of his mouth. “Have my rent or you have to move!” He yells, looking at Momma over the top of his black rim glasses.
He stomps down the hall. Momma stands in the doorway and watch him walk away. Jaden sits on the floor silent, his legs crossed. Ladybug and I sit silent too. Momma stand in the doorway for a long time looking down the empty hall like Mr. Samson is still there. Daddy walks up and we all sit frozen looking at Momma. Momma looks like she ‘bout to cry, but don’t. But she looks at Daddy like she wants to.
I look out the window and see Mr. Samson come out of our building holding a yellow envelope full of people’s rent in his arms. He stands in front of our building and looks around before walking to his car because he wants to make sure nobody gone rob him – because he always thinks somebody gone rob him. Nobody be even thinking about him. Some people just act like they gone rob him, but don’t. Daddy say they do it to “scare the shit out of his ass”. I heard him tell that to my Momma.
Now Mr. Samson walks to his small, brown car, which is dented and rusted on the side, around the doors. He gets in and gets ready to start it up, but Daddy runs to the car, opens the door, snatches him out by the collar of his tan jacket, and throws him to the ground. Mr. Samson hits the ground hard, making a thump. He falls on his hands, knees, face, and rolls over, his eyes big, and mouth open like he want to scream but can’t. His glasses, one lens stretched with mud on it, crooked and falling off his face. He looks up at Daddy, who stands over him with his fist balled and breathing heavy like Ali, his teeth clenched and veins jumping on the side of his neck – ‘bout to pop.
“Sorry,” Mr. Samson say in our living room, looking into Momma’s eyes, his voice shaking like he ‘bout to break down and cry.
“Say it again,” Daddy say with his eyes red and hands white and ashy from the cold. He has a big, patchy beard and long sideburns, ‘cause he ain’t shave in days. Daddy stand on the side of Mr. Samson, holding him by the collar of his jacket.
“Stokely!” Momma say. Mr. Samson, his eyes big and blinking rapidly, looks at Momma. Squatting a little, he closes his eyes tight then opens them again like he hope Daddy ain’t gone be standing there when he open them. But when he open them, Daddy right there blowing his hot breath on him. “Stokely!” Momma say, scared, “Stop!”
“Say it again!” Daddy say, his mouth tight. The muscles in his jaw twitching like ripples in water. The veins in his temple sticking out like they trying to bust free.
“Sorry … sorry” Mr. Samson say.
“Apologize to my kids too,” Daddy say with his fist balled. Mr. Samson looks at us with his eyes big, grinding his teeth. Sweat pouring down his red, flushed face. His black hair, sweat‑soaked wet, sticking to his forehead and brushing the top of his eyebrows.
“Sorry,” he say, his voice cracking. “Sorry, children,” he say, looking at us all. Jaden stand by the table and looks Mr. Samson in his eyes.
“Tell them you will never speak to their Momma like that again,” My Daddy say with his jaw clenched, his face pressed against Mr. Samson ear. His nose touching Mr. Samson. His breath hot on the side of Mr. Samson face.
“I …will… ne-ne-ver speak t-t-to your m-m-mother like that a-a-again,” he say, stuttering. Stain running down his brown slacks. He peeing on his self? He looks at Daddy ready for the next sentence, but Daddy grab him by the jacket and drag him down the hall. I snatch the kaleidoscope from Ladybug. She cry.
Daddy walks into the house breathing heavy, his clothes wrinkled. His face full of sweat. Momma look at him, walk in they bedroom, and slam the door.
“What!” Daddy say. We hear Momma banging and bumping around stuff in the room. “I don’t see what you mad for!”
“You want to know what I’m mad for?” Momma say, talking real fast to Daddy like she a train getting ready to run off a track because its moving too fast. “What the hell was that?”
“That was me taking up for you!” Daddy say.
“You did not take up for me! Momma fire back.
“The hell I didn’t!”.
As they scream, our little apartment shrink and pull us in like it’s breathing. They words bounce around the walls and windows and ruffle the curtains.
“You did not! You made things worst! You just assaulted that damn man! Now we know he gone make us move. I was working on it trying to buy us some time and you beat him up,”
“I did not beat him up!” Daddy voice sound tired.
“It sure in hell look like you did. And in front of the kids. Jesus, Stokely!”
“Good, ‘cause they gone learn to let nobody run over them!”
“No, Stokely, they gone learn how to get themselves locked up. They gone learn that violence the way to go. They gone learn your dumb pride is more important than us having a roof over they head. We not gone live in your pride – we owe him money and he has the right to come up here to ask for it.”
“Not like that.”
“I know… but sometimes we just have to take it if it mean that we keep the roof over our heads until we got better. If the police come get you, then what? I need you to help me.”
“I hate this shit,” Daddy say as he open the door, Momma following him. He looks at me, Jaden and Ladybug. Jaden sits in a chair flicking a piece of rubber that’s hanging from the bottom of his shoe. I stand by the table eating a slice of bread and looking at him and Momma. Ladybug sleep, drooling on the arm of the couch. Daddy pull Momma close to him and kiss her forehead. She close her eyes and puts her head on his chest.
“Here’s your money,” my Daddy say handing Mr. Samson a yellow, dirty wrinkle envelope full of money, wrinkle bills mainly. Daddy pawned the TV, a speaker, and an old watch his daddy gave him years ago. Momma gave him her birthday earrings, but he said “no” and told her to put them back in the drawer.
Now, my Daddy, Momma, Ladybug, Jaden and me stand in Mr. Samson fancy downtown office in a fancy downtown building, where the walls are marble, the floors are waxed and the elevators are gold or look gold. We came here on the train, then a bus, then another train.
Now, Mr. Samson looks at Daddy. The rims of his new glasses slipping off. He sits in a rolling chair by a cabinet like he getting ready to get something out of a drawer when we walked in. He, sitting still like he got a bomb on his lap, stare at Daddy. Daddy holds the envelope out to him. Mr. Samson stare at it then rolls his chair to his desk and finally takes it. Ladybug walks over to Daddy for him to pick her up. He does and holds her in his arms.
“It’s all in there and I put some interest in there too,” My Daddy say. Ladybug wraps her arms around his neck. Daddy taps Mr. Samson desk with the tips of his fingers. “Aye, man, look I’m sorry I put my hands on you the other day,” Daddy says and looks at Jaden, Ladybug, and me. “I’m sorry. I was wrong. I had no right to touch you, Man . I should have just came at you like a man and said ‘can you please respect my wife and children as you would want a man or anyone to respect yours.’ I am saying that now. Can you please respect my family?”
Mr. Samson looks at Daddy and don’t say a word. Daddy looks around the office, wipe his patchy, ruff beard with his ashy hand. “Come on y’all,” Daddy say, puts Ladybug down, take her hand, standing up. I see a bowl full of peppermints on Mr. Samson desk.
“Can you ask if I can have some of them peppermints?” I say to Momma with my hand over my mouth like a cup. Mr. Samson look up, reach to the edge of his desk and pick up the bowl of peppermints. He look at Momma, who nods. Then he get up and hold the bowl down to me. I grab a hand full.
“Just one, Rochelle,” Momma say. I just take one.
“Thank you,” I say opening it. Then he hold the bowl to Jaden. Jaden look at the peppermints like he trying to grab a big one, but they all the same size so he need to stop doing that. Jaden takes one.
“Thank you,” Jaden say, looking at it all crazy and rolling it between his fingers, making the plastic crumple load.
Ladybug walks over to the bowl. Mr. Samson look at Momma and she shakes her head, so he pulls the bowl up. Ladybug fall on the floor and start screaming and kicking. Daddy and Momma, sweating, look at her, their eyes and mouths wide open.
“Stop,” Daddy say and try to pull her to her feet by one of hers arm, but she fall back to the floor, looking at the bowl of peppermints, tears dropping from her eyes like little diamonds.
I get on one knee, pull off my book bag, and open it up. “Here,” I say, handing my kaleidoscope to Ladybug. She stop crying, stand up, take it and hold it tight. Then she smile and show it to Daddy, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand.
“I see,” Daddy say, sighing with his eyebrows raised, looking at Mr. Samson, who sit at his desk looking at us and still holding the bowl of peppermints. “Let’s go,” Daddy say and nod to Mr. Samson. Mr. Samson nod back. The sun set as we walk out the fancy building onto the sidewalk.
“Momma,” I say moving the peppermint around in my mouth.
“Yes, Rochelle,” Momma say.
“Can I still have the peppermint from your purse?” I say.
“I saw it first” Jaden say, skipping and holding momma hand and swinging it back and forth. Momma looks down at me.
“What did I tell you about that toy” she say to me. I spread my fingers real wide and stare at my hand because I think I see something on it.
“Look Momma,” I say to Momma and show her my hand.”
She smile, shake her head, rub my hair, and takes my hand into hers.
“Can we get on that?” Jaden say pointing to big statue of a bird. A whole lot of pigeons walk around beside it eating bread that somebody put down.
“Y’all can’t get on it but y’all can run by it,” Momma say.
“Okay, come on Shell,” Jaden say to me and run. I follow. Daddy let Ladybug hand go and she try to run too, wobbling behind us.
“Be careful!” Momma say limping and walking slow. Daddy put his arm around her and pull her close to him.
“We will!” Jaden say as we run and make the pigeons scatter and fly away.