St. Louis Day 4: Poisoned

I can’t run today because Norma’s gonna be here soon. We’ve got 9:30 brunch plans and it’s already 8:30 by the time I wake up.
            “Oooh girl, you slept in late!” says Jean. I think this is not late because in my time zone it’s still just 6:30. I correct her and tell her she is the one that’s late because she’s in her own damn time zone.
            “Well, get ready because Norma Jean’s gonna be by pretty soon.” I hop in the shower and wash off the smoke that I know is gonna stick to me in the few minutes after I hop out. Contacts in, makeup on and I’m ready to see a little more of the city.
            Norma Jean grabs us in her boyfriend’s black BMW and Tina and Jean ooh and aww over how luxurious it is.
            “This is a nice ride, a niiiice ride, it sho is,” says Jean. “Mmm… hmm… I gotta get me one of these.”
            We take Skinker all the way down to Keinlin and down some other round about roads till we get to an IHOP that is crowded and bustling. I do not like IHOP in the least and have only had bad experiences here except for the time at 4am in Raleigh when it was the only thing that could sober me up.
            I look at the menu and there are very limited options for a gluten, dairy, soy, and egg free eater like myself and so decide on the grilled tilapia and steamed broccoli. The others go for the cheapest items on the Senior 55 and over portion of the menu, which means pancakes, waffles, bacon, and ample amounts of butterscotch and classic maple syrup.
            We get our own big carafe of coffee and drink it like cold water on a hot day.
            We discuss the previous few days and our visit to see Lois.
            “What about that Darryl guy, don’t you think maybe Tommy’s right that he might be abusive?” I ask.
            “Well, he might be but that sho is her problem and not mine,” answers Jean.
            “He wasn’t very nice when he came out to meet us. He barely said hi to us and gave us some awful glares.”
            “Well you’re not that nice either.”
            “What are you talking about? If I were being introduced to people I would at least stick around for more than a literal second.”  She is obviously confusing my shyness for lack of caring.
            “I’m the only friendly one around here! I’m friendly and I care about people. See I go talk to everyone, everyone! You ain’t friendly and you don’t care about people.”
            I can feel my heart galloping now and my cheeks are on fire.
            “Don’t assume you know ANYTHING about me! Just because I don’t talk to everyone doesn’t mean I don’t care, it means I’m shy! Shy and not caring are not the same thing!”
            “Oh girl, you don’t care.”
            “Yes I do, I just don’t express it the same way you do.”
             Norma attempts to mediate the situation and agrees with me but Jean won’t listen. I am pissed, decide that this should be the end of our conversation and look away to my phone for moral support.  How dare she decide that she understands me as a person when she has barely known me for longer than these few days.
            Our food comes but only after tables that have ordered before us get theirs. Aunt Jean is steaming mad and already talking about sending her food back because it’s gonna be cold.
            The rest of us tell her to cool down and just wait and see what’s up.
            When it does come it is actually is kind of cool, but Jean doesn’t send it back because she’s too hungry to wait for more and doesn’t trust that it won’t come back to us with spit and piss mixed in. 
            My tilapia with mushroom sauce looks fine until I start eating it and it tastes a little off, but I keep eating because I’m once again famished and can’t stop shoveling it in. 
            I sit in silence the rest of the time and wonder on how I can get a few moments away from everyone to cool down, but don’t see an out.  I want to sequester myself in a bathroom stall and call friends but when I reach the bathroom it is a single and there is a line so I take my turn and return to the table.
            Norma Jean pays our check, we exit for one of many smoke breaks and then drive across the street to Galleria mall. We enter Dillards and peruse the purses, the shoes, and then I realize that something is wrong. Something is terribly wrong and I need to find a bathroom fast. 
            “I’ll be back,” I shout as I run toward a clerk and ask where the closest restroom is. I’m gonna be sick. My stomach has turned and I think I might throw up. Getting to the restroom feels like wading through a desert to an oasis.  When I find it, I am seconds away from shitting on myself and am grateful I made it in time. My mouth is watery and tingling so I make sure I have a bag in front of me just in case.
            Right now I am sure that I have been food poisoned.
            Why the fuck did you keep eating it?  I ask myself, but I know the answer and it is stupid and I am angry at myself for knowing that something was wrong and letting it go.
            My head is in vertigo as I leave the restroom and my body shivering. I know all is not yet well, but I must get back to my family. When I find them they are upstairs and Tina is just taking off a pair of Coach boots that are snuggly stuck to her foot and have to be pried off by an extra pair of hands.
            “I’ll take them!” She tells a girl that must have been helping her.
            “Where you been?” They all ask in chorus.
            “Oh, just looking at the lingerie downstairs, needed a few things.” I didn’t want to admit what was really going on, that I was sick and that I needed rest. 
            Not long after, we make our way from the mall to yet another smoke break and then over to Shnucks, a local chain grocery store. In desperation I pick up some lemon, ginger, coconut water, and lemon sorbet. My body is convinced that lemon sorbet is the simple resolution to my sickness.
            While I find my remedies, Norma Jean, Aunt Jean, and Aunt Tina find their way to the fish counter and have a few pounds of catfish fried up for our dinner.
            “Mmm, this is gonna be some good fish!”
            I want to hurl at the idea of having any more fish after that less than savory breakfast.
            Norma Jean drives us to her house for dinner and cards. Dinner is the catfish and some salad. Though I still feel a little nauseous there is still a lasting hunger that makes me go after the cool leafy greens. The salty warm smell of the catfish lingers and I quickly give in and have a small piece because I’ve gotta know what it tastes like. It’s my first taste since I was ten.
            “What do I put on it?”
            “Anything you want. I put ketchup or hot sauce.”
            “Would mustard be fine.”
            “Sure, try what you like.”
            I douse my little fish in mustard, find a seat and devour the catfish and greens as if it’s my last meal. The fish is delicious but I don’t want to take too many chances and decide against more and go for the sorbet, half a container of it. Soon I feel less shaky and more grounded in my body but I’m not sure this is the last I’ll see of my stomach problems.
            We eat around the TV and everyone catches up on As the World Turns. I feel like it’s the same as yesterday’s episode, but they all say “no, no girl, this, this and this has happened.” I’m still pretty sure it’s the same anyway.
            After dinner, once my Aunt Linda finally arrives my Aunties and Norma Jean sit at the tiny plastic kitchen table and start a three hour long game of Spades. The game is fast paced. One game takes five minutes or less and there are two teams. They make up rules and teams and get going. There is hootin and howling in the kitchen the longer the night goes. 
            “Oh no, Oh no!” is what I hear from the living room. I don’t want to join the game because I need to get some time alone. It’s time to pray and do some daily devotions from the new So Who Do you think you are?  series at my church.
            I get time for my devotions and a short nap before more people enter the house, because in black houses the door is always open and the people are endless.
            In walks Norma Jean’s daughter Stephanie and her brothers of whom I can’t remember the names.
            Stephanie talks and talks about what’s been going on here and there and tells us that we should join her at Stress Free Friday’s, a networking happy hour for professionals in the African-American community.  
            The only thing I know is that I want to go because there were be more people there than just my Peoples.
            “I’ll be there!” I say. Things are looking up.
            Don’t get me wrong, I love my family, but at this point I have been sequestered in rooms, halls, and dining areas with them for the entire trip and I want to meet people who aren’t Peoples like I want a piece of gluten free chocolate cake.  
            When three hours have passed, games have been won and the cards passed to countless people for more games, it’s time to leave once again. Some are just happy while others are happy and drunk. I am neither, but I’m alive.  Everyone makes sure to send love to everyone else and the night is once again over and it’s time to meet my blow up mattress once again.

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St. Louis Day 3: Tackheaded Women

I wake myself up with another run. It’s not so much that I want to run as get out of the house and get some fresh air.  Though it’s still a bitter cold, I suit up and get ready to head out.
            “You sure it’s not too cold,” says Tina as she lights a smoke near the oven hood.
            One stare at that lit cigarette and I am sure that I need to get out.
            “Yup, I need the exercise.” This is of course true and I don’t want to miss too many days that I would usually spend at the gym, but running outside is not ideal.
            I take a good 2.5 mile jog out into University City and grab some coffee on my way back. I weave in and out of the neighborhood, checking out the
University City is nice, it’s a little college neighborhood that houses the Northern Campus of Washington University. It is wealthy while Jean lives in low-income house only half a mile away.
            It looks more like the things I’m used to with the retail row dotted with specialty shops, music stores, and of course Starbucks. As I make my way back with Starbucks in my hand I am cautious and make sure that I stay on the main road as I have been warned that the area can be dangerous once you leave University City.
            At the apartment I am told to get ready because we’re going to hang out in the community room. It’s the big room attached at the front for the residents to hang out in. I throw some clothes on, grab my books and make my way downstairs. We meet Norma Jean, an old friend of my Aunties at the door and head into the room.
            Jean knows everyone in the room and introduces them all to us.
            “Hey Jimmy, Harry, Sally, Shirley, Jesse, and on and on.” Everyone is either playing pool, playing cards, or seated watching it all happen. 
            We make our way to a table and set ourselves up. Norma Jean Gauldin has known the Peoples family since she was 11. The Gauldin’s and Peoples families lived right across the street from each other on Enright and became best friends almost immediately. The Peoples family had seven children while the Gauldin’s had six. Some of them would pair up to hang out if they were close in age and at other times all of them would find their way into parks or into trouble.
            Norma Jean was my Aunt Shirley Jean’s best friend, probably because of the similarity in the middle name.  They still are best friends. Aunt Tina married Norma’s older brother Robert after high school and became a Gauldin herself that’s how tight the two families were.
            Norma Jean has a bright smile and a caring face.  She is dark and pretty. At first I think she is no older than 45 or 50 but realize that she is 61 just like Jean and has babies, grandbabies, and now a new great grand baby. She reminds me that “black don’t crack” and I am grateful. She also has a sweet deep laugh that I get to hear over and over again as they tell stories.
            “How are you brothers?” asks Tina.
            “Oh… they’re the same, they’re above ground and still dating those tack-headed women.”
            “What’s tack-headed?” I interrupt.
            “Oh it’s those damn women that don’t care about themselves. They don’t care how they look or what they’re doing with their lives. They’re all about drinking, drugs, and gambling. Yup, my brothers like them because they don’t have to commit to nothin’.”
            I love that these women have a name that there is a whole group of people devoted to just living day to day. Men can be tack-headed too, but it seems that they just get called no good niggas or gangsta’s by everyone around here.
            They all catch up and I listen to it happen. I don’t bring up too much about my life unless Jean brings it up, especially the fact that I am a musician. She tells anyone and everyone that her niece is a musician and is going to be touring the country. In reality yes I’m a musician but my band is just going to be doing a fourteen day tour across the South soon, but that doesn’t matter to her. To her I’m already famous.
            “Booby’s a musician too Nicole, maybe you two can get together and do something. He’s family and family gotta help each other out.”
            “Yeah and my grandson Kev is a musician too, he had a popular one come out not long ago. Have you heard of Huey?”
            I shake my head no.
            “Well they’ve got a big song that hit, you should look ‘em up.”
            I nod sure because I think it’s wonderful that there are more musicians, but I am doubtful that there will be a collaboration because I’m indie folk while they’re all hip-hop. I also just don’t listen to hip-hop much unless it’s playing on top 40 while I’m in the car trying to stay awake.
            I try to keep quiet so the conversation will turn from me and onto something different. I know soon Aunt Jean will grow weary of talking about me and move onto herself or someone she knows. As quick as a bullet they start talking about who is or isn’t still alive.
            “Well Charles dead not too long ago.”
            “What about your cousin, Lou I think it is.”
            “Oh he’s okay, but you know his brother got shot up there on some street near MLK not too far back.”
            “I’m am grateful I made it past 60. Do you know how many people don’t live to see 45 this day and age?”
            “Yeah, we’ve sure put a lot of ‘em away.”
            “Yeah, we’re lucky for sure.”
            I am sad for them that they’ve put so many of “them” away, while I’ve barely seen any death. My mom was the first close person I ever knew that passed and she I can be sure will always be the heaviest and the hardest on my heart. I am grateful I don’t live here where death comes so easily to the young.
            It’s now that I remember that two of my Aunties brothers died pretty young. Eddie Jr. was shot in the back of the head at 17 in front of their house on Enright and their brother Buddy was stabbed by his girlfriend at 30. Two brothers gone before they’d ever even had a real chance at life.
            A few hours later Aunt Linda arrives by herself in Tommy’s car and says it’s time to head to Aunt Sue’s for dinner. “She’s cooked us dinner.”
            “Oh Lord, at her age!” Tina seems beside herself that a 91 year-old would get over the stove for us without any help.
            We say our goodbyes to Norma and plan to meet in the morning for breakfast and head off to Aunt Sue’s.
            The house smells thick with cheese, a velveeta of some kind. She has made us pork chops, lima beans smothered with cheese, cornbread, and spaghetti with meat balls. The spaghetti is really for Tina because she can’t eat pork.
            This is another one of those days where I am starving both because there’s not much food at Jean’s for me to eat and because of their odd eating schedules. I shovel pork chops and the lima beans on my plate though I know I shouldn’t do it because I’m going to pay a mighty price for the cheese, but I decide it’s better than going for the spaghetti or cornbread.
            I’m up for seconds while the others are only midway through their meals.
            “Were you hungry baby?” Asks Uncle Jesse.
            “Mmm…hmm.” I don’t know when I’ve ever been this hungry. I’ve been hungry most of the short time I’ve been here.
            “If you’re ever hungry again just get up and get yourself somethin’. This is your home now too. We’re you’re family.”
            It never occurred to me to get anything. Never occurred to me to impose like that on my family even if they have that title because I’d never felt like I had family until now.
            “When you’re done with that I found all the pictures,” says Aunt Sue.
            As soon as we’re done eating and washing up we head to the living room a small but efficient room with a black leather couch, two black leather easy chairs Aunt Sue’s brown velvet recliner, a small 70’s coffee table decorated with flower tiles, and a 21” flat screen to break the space apart. Aunt Sue and Uncle Jesse retell stories of their parents peanut farm down in Alabama, about them eating those peanuts when they were still green and raw.
We look at photos of lost family and young pictures of family still with us.
            “Guess who this is?” Aunt Sue shoves a tiny old black and white of a little girl with wild braids in my face.
            “Umm…”
            “Girl, that’s your Aunt Tina.” I stare at the features because they don’t look anything like her, but I believe her because it is confirmed by Tina.
            “Oh yeah, that’s me. Here’s another one of me too, holding your Aunt Linda on my hip, and on the left there is your mother.”
            This is the only young photo I’ve ever seen of my mom besides her high school graduation photo. She looks just like me as a child, or I look just like her. Aunt Tina looks angry.
            “I was angry! That girl was always attached to my hip like I was her momma!”
            This was like any other large family where the oldest always takes care of the youngest while their parents attend to other things.
            I learned the names and faces of Peoples I will never know but look like.
            In the background of our conversations is always the sound of a Western on TV, the only thing Uncle Jesse is found watching on a daily basis except for at 4pm when there is a break for As the World Turns.
            It’s not long before the day has gotten away from us and we grow tired again. Linda needs to pick Tommy up from his family soon and get back to her hotel before too late.
            “Well y’all could stay here. We’ve got a few extra rooms,” says Aunt Sue.
            “We might take you up on that later this week, but not tonight. It’s too late.”
            There are lots of hugs and the four of us leave again.  In the car the four of us confirm tomorrow’s plans of brunch, the mall, and more food.
            “Goodnight, I love you.”
            “You too.”
            Linda leaves and it’s time for bed.

St Louis Day 2: Baby it’s cold outside

It is early when I wake. What looks like 7:30 is 5:30am my time and my eyes are crusty and heavy from going to bed so late that morning, but I heave myself out of bed (a blow up mattress on the living room floor) because Aunt Jean is already rustling around the kitchen getting her coffee ready.
“Good morning gurl!”
“Hey.” I can’t muster any energy to seem enthusiastic about being up this early.
“We got a good day planned, yeah a good day. Linda gonna be over and we gonna go see Aunt Sue around noon.”
All I can think is thank God we have a few hours before I have to deal with people. I want to get out of here for awhile, go on a jog to wake my body up, but the news says it’s a brisk 18 degrees and I’m not sure my body is ready for that. I grab a granny smith apple and some peanut butter and sit in front of the tv watching the local news while I stare at the weather barometer on the bottom of the screen for any sign of it getting warmer.
I decide that when it hits 20 degrees I will head out. At 19 degrees I mentally prepare and change into my workout clothes. My aunt’s presume I’m crazy and say things like, “no no no, it is too cold out there for me, my joints would be aching.”
I laugh it off, but I’m wondering if I can even do it. There is a part of me that knows I have to jog in this weather now just to prove that I can.
Fuck,  I think because I seriously don’t want to do this, but eventually the temperature reaches 20 and I know it’s time to leave.
With my hot pink track jacket and hot pink gloves I find my way out the door and hope that the neighborhood is safe enough.
“Go down to Delmar baby, you’ll be fine. Take that right and you’ll find a starbucks.”
I head off with the hope of finding Starbucks not too far away.
The Killers are blasting in my head phones and one stride after another I make it closer to warmth and glorious coffee. The run is not actually bad. I stay warm and my brow never sweats because it is being wiped away by the wind. I am almost happy for the cold that is until I grab my coffee and decide to walk the same route home.
Instead of a nice soothing wind I feel like I’m being brow beaten and whipped. My fingers quickly grow numb and my toes are catching up with them. I contemplate running with the coffee but decide against it for the obvious reason that more of it would be on me than in my mouth.
When I have to stop thinking about how uncomfortable I am, I will sometimes count and in order to forget the cold I began counting steps.
One, two, three… sixty-eight, sixty-nine, seventy.  At approximately two hundred and five I lost count in order to illegally j-run across the street, but when I made it back I felt proud because in my hand was a lukewarm cup of coffee that the old folks couldn’t believe I had run for.
I had accomplished something and possibly almost lost some tiny appendages called fingers.
Linda and Tommy came to pick us up around noon and once again we pile into the car always wedging Tina into the middle. Every time she gives an “Ow, or oooh… damn that seat belt, it keeps hurtin me!”
We laugh and tell her to watch out, but the next time it seems to happen again.
Today we are going to Aunt Sue’s house where she lives with Uncle Jesse her brother. She doesn’t know that all of us are here in St. Louis, this is the surprise we’ve been meaning to give her since her 90th birthday.
Jean knocks on the door when we arrive as we hide around the corner.
“Heyyyyy Aunt Sue, how you doin?”
“Oh, I’m good. Come on in.”
“Is it okay if I bring some of my friends in?”
“Sure, Sure.”
Tina, Linda, Tommy, and I all emerge from around the corner and she just stares.
“I don’t know who you is. I mean… I know you’ve got my face, but I don’t remember your names! Tell me!”
We all give her big, long hugs and introduce ourselves. I knew she wouldn’t remember me, because she hasn’t seen me since I was fifteen. I wasn’t much surprised by her sliding memory at her age, but when we got in I saw that pretty much only names had slipped and not much else.
Aunt Sue is spry for 91, running around the house, making us dinner, going through closets. She has a cane that she uses when her knee gets weak, but her body seems to be doing better than the lot of sixty something’s sitting next to her. She comes from the generation where ailments don’t get spoken at the table just in the bedroom, so I might be reading it all wrong.
There is more reminiscing, talk of passed away family and far away ones too.
“They down in Alabama” or “they done gone over to Texas,” or “didn’t you hear, he passed? Yeah… about a year ago or so.”
When someone has passed everyone nods and says, “Mmm…mmm,” then moves on. The acknowledgement of death is not what I’m used to. In Seattle it’s sad and hard and something to talk on for a while, while here it’s normal, it’s just a part that happens everyday.
At 91 Aunt Sue has seen a lot of death. She is the third child out of thirteen and one of only three left. There was Evelyn, John, Susie, Wallace – also called Ham, Eddie Sr., Sam, Connie, Minnie, Adabelle, Cleo, Jesse, Hattie, and Genevieve.
She had children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren die before her too, but those lines are too long for me to relate to you now.
I love my Aunt Sue’s laugh and the way she talks real high and says, “oh look at all my babies.” She smacks her teeth, smiles a lot, and points real hard at things. She is wonderful.
I am staring at her for a mighty long time and hoping that she doesn’t notice. Part of me just likes to see the way she moves and see the Peoples line in her. She is light skinned like most of the other Peoples, descending from Cornelius Nicholas (ma-dear) and John Peoples (Popi). Aunt Jean says the line that comes from Ma-dear and Popi are all red.
I follow the line of the room and notice all the red notes in everyone’s skin including mine.
“We is all red because Ma-dear was Indian,” says Jean.
“Oh yes she was! Cherokee,” says Aunt Sue.
My smile is a hard one because I just can’t get over how lovely my Aunt is and how much I wish I could have met her brother Eddie Sr., my grandpa, before he passed.
The girls tended to favor Ma-Dear while the boys were much darker like their father John.
Eventually we talk about an extreme hunger and Uncle Jesse goes out to buy us some Popeye’s. Everyone was kind and let me order food that would work with my dietary restrictions, so we ended up with fried chicken, green beans, and red beans and rice.
My stomach is turning on it’s side because of the eating schedule I’ve been on since arriving with scattered meals and barely any food I can eat. I eat the chicken without the skin and shovel heaping spoonfuls of the saltiest green beans and red beans and rice onto my plate. This is the best meal I’ve ever eaten.
After hours of this and that my Aunt Dela and her son Michael arrive. She is a twig of a woman, dark skin and short hair curled under what looks like a Church hat. She is stylishly wearing a blue coat lined with fur, though it looks hard on her frail body. She is sliding her feet across the floor moving slowly toward the chair being both pulled and held up by Michael. He sits her down and this is where she resides the entirety of her stay.
Everyone rambles on about the state of the world, about how it’s getting worse and worse and how all of them are getting shorter.
“Ooh, with this arthritis I done lost two whole inches! I was 5’8 and now I’m 5’6!” Aunt Linda gets up to show us her shorter stature and everyone nods and chimes in about how it’s happening to them too.
The arthritis has gotten to almost all of them and they say soon I will have it too but I’m just too young to know about it. I am insistent that it won’t happen to me, maybe because I’m too young to believe them.
When eight hours have passed we decide it’s time to leave. Aunt Sue needs to sleep soon and our bodies are growing tired, but that doesn’t mean this is the end of the night.
We make our way towards Aunt Hattie’s house, one of Sue’s younger sisters. She is recovering from a recent gall bladder surgery and we decide we need to go over and give her our well wishes.
Our arrival is greeted by her son Arthur a stocky man, light as the rest of us. Aunt Sue comes down too, slow for sure, but smiling and excited. She doesn’t know me either.
“This is Carolyn’s daughter.” This is one of the things I hear at pretty much every place we visit, multiple times until everyone has been introduced to me.
Yup, I’m Carolyn’s daughter and memories of my mother flood back every time I hear her name. They also seem to catch me off guard when my Aunt Tina talks and walks because my mother was her replica only a bit darker.
Here we talk about pretty much the same things we already talked about before just with different people. How this person and that person are and everyone remarks on the in memoriam card on the table for the boy next store that was shot and stuffed in his trunk.
“Took them three weeks to find that boy and he was just out in his trunk. It’s a damn shame.”
As we talk, more people enter the house.
My cousin Maurice, then Booby awhile later. They are younger than the rest, around my age and they take the obligatory pictures with my Aunties and hide away in the kitchen.
Sharon gets there and it turns into a party. She is loud loud loud. You could not contain her voice in a room of 10 inches of thick steel. She is sweet, funny, and gorgeous. She is the dark dark dark compared to everyone else.
“You’re only getting to see the red side of your family tonight Nicole except for Sharon, there are more dark ones like her around though,” remarks Aunt Jean.
I want to tune out and sleep on the couch because exhaustion is quickly folding its arms around me, but the laughs are too big and heavy for me to sleep.
The conversation turns to a woman named Lois that I find out is Sharon’s sister.
“Ooh girl she done gone and got burned up!”
At first it sounds like it’s a humerous conversation the way people start laughing until Sharon explain that Lois was “out doing yard work with her boyfriend, drunk as a sailor he threw gas on her. She somehow forgot the gas was there, went back in the house to grab a cigarette and lit herself on fire! She tried to put herself out by rolling on the bed and her skin stuck to it.”
We are all horrified at the circumstances and about how fishy it sounds that she would have forgotten the gas was there.
“That girl’s got nine lives! She’s just like a cat! Remember when she got all shot up?”
“Oh yeah, what… and she was stabbed!”
“She sure is lucky, she better watch herself, she probably used up all her lives by now!”
They talk of her for a while and I am sad and horrified by the story. They seem to mostly be amused because it’s Lois and that’s how Lois is.
It turns to 1Opm and we decide to make our exit. It is late and I’m ready for bed.
“Well… before we head in we better drive over and visit Lois,” says Jean.
“I guess so,” says Linda even though I can hear her hesitation, and so Tommy drives us on around.
They begin to make speculations as to what really happened.
“Sounds like abuse to me, I bet he lit her on fire,” says Tommy as we’re driving there.
“Mmm… maybe.” Everyone really starts thinking about it and wondering why she’s still with him because maybe this is actually the case.
We arrive at Lois’s and she is puffing a cigarette on the front porch of her beaten down white washed house.
She is dark as the night is long, short and scrawny. She’s wearing jean overalls with a white t-shirt that barely covers the scars on her chest and her necks looks like it has almost melted off. Her mouth barely moves when she speaks and it’s hard to understand most words that leave her lips.
Lois’s hugs are hard and lasting. It’s as if she doesn’t want to let go of any person that meets them for fear they’ll never come back. I could definitely see not coming back here. Everything about the house is poor from the broken front door to the stacks of old papers on the table. It is smoky just like the other houses I’ve been to and the couches are ratty and mussed up with old stains.
It doesn’t matter though because Lois is laughing. She laughs hard with broken teeth and says she’s excited to see us. I get one out of about every five or six words, but I can’t miss that she is happy that family has come in.
“Ooh, how you doing?” says Tina.
“Well… I’m alive.”
“I know! I heard that your on your ninth life. It’s like you’re a cat!”
Lois nods, “mmm…hmm.”
“Well I was stabbed that time by that guy I lived with. Yup and he was angry because I wanted his money.”
“For what?”
“Oh, for crack.”
“Oh.” Everyone is shaking their heads because we already knew what she was gonna say but it’s still hard to hear.
“Well, what about that shooting we’ve heard about?
“Oh that? Well… you know I gots shot here and here and here and here and some other places too.” She is pointing to all areas of her body.  I can’t really keep track of the spots, but I know that she should be dead.
“It was the crack that saved me, kept my body going. Kept my adrenaline up.”
Of course we all know, if not for the crack she wouldn’t even have been there.
“I got to the hospital and they thought they took them all out, but a month later I had to go back. Ooh, the pain in my back, ooh it hurt and they found another piece of bullet. “
“Mmm…mmm. I wouldn’t be alive if that happened to me,” says Jean. “My skin is too soft for bullets, would have taken me down!”
“You know, I kept dancing and moving while I was being shot, didn’t even really notice they was in there till the ambulance got there and I had to lay down. Nine times I was shot. Nine times!”  Lois is expressive. She dances around the room like she is reliving the experience, the high that she had.
“Well, we heard you went and got yourself burned too!”
“Oh yeah, last summer. You know me and Darryl was out doing the yard and stuff and gas got on me and poof! I was lighting a cigarette and I was on fire. Ooh, it hurt. I could smell my skins burnin’ and my flesh was soft and I felt like it was melting. Ooh, wee! I was in the hospital for awhile and got out. Now I gotta take all these pills for all of the pain.”
She goes and grabs all of her pills for us to see, different pain killers and sedatives. She says she’s been on the Oxycodone for a few months now and might need it for eternity.
We stare at the pills like pills are something new.
“Have you learned anything yet?” Says Linda. “Don’t you think God is telling you something?”
“Oh yeah, well… he might be. Yeah, I might go to Church one of these days.”
            “Why, haven’t you gone yet?
            “Well I haven’t found the right one!”
            “Have you gone to any?”
            “Not yet, noooo, not yet.”
When 11:30 comes we decide to call it a night. We have listened to her stories and told her some of ours but we are beat and she looks it too.  The goodbyes are long hugs and “see you soons,” though it seems there is no though of returning again on this trip.
            Tommy’s old Caddy gets it’s money’s worth with us and we get back in and head back to Jean’s apartment. Home sweet home.
Another last gulp of fresh air and it’s time for bed.


St. Louis Day 1: Meet the family

I’m not sure what to expect as I deboard Southwest flight 408 from Seattle to St. Louis. This is the first time I will be spending a significant amount of time with my family, living with them, learning about them, listening to them. My stomach is grumbling, perhaps with hunger but also excitement.
My Aunt Tina meets me at baggage claim and looks just like my mom from her hair and clothes down to her voice and the way she walks, just lighter skinned and older.
I am happy to see her, but this is a family that keeps a cool exterior when they see each other and so we hug, smile and say, “It’s so good to see you,” instead of
the usual squeal of “OMG I haven’t seen you in so long” that comes from other people. Everything seems subdued here. Things are slower, people are slower.
I get to the car where my Aunt Jean is waiting with her good friend Harry. He is a tenant in the building she lives in and driving her around because she doesn’t have a car. He is dark man with a large smile and gold capped teeth.   
Harry pulls away my bags and shoves my oversized red luggage in the trunk of his black oldsmobile and my guitar in between myself and Aunt Tina in the back and begin my journey with my new found family.
“How you?” They ask.
“Oh good, just tired.”
“Mmm…hmmm, that’s what a plane ride will do to you.”
They talk amongst themselves for quite awhile, while I barely understand most of the words passing between them with their slight southern drawls.
When they laugh I laugh so it doesn’t look like I’m missing their jokes.  
“So what? You play the blues on that there guitar?”
“I don’t, but I’ll learn it for you,” I said.
“Mmm…hmmm that’s right.” There is more laughter and smaking of lips.
I want to talk but can’t because the landscape is new and my eyes need to know it more than my mouth needs to speak. Everything is grey and cold because it is grey and cold at about twenty degrees. The city is painted white, gray, and peach and doesn’t stand out much with no hills to break the distance apart. I can’t tell the direction we’re travelling, so I just let it go and keep staring.
The deeper we drive into St. Louis the more dilapidated the buildings get. Many are boarded up and tagged over. Some are torn or burned down to the ground. I keep my silence and don’t ask where we are going, if it’s safe or warm. I just wait and watch buildings and houses fly by.
A large cemetery meets my view and I follow its curves around corners and mention its enormity to my family.  At the end is Normandy High, which looks like it can hold around 4000 students. It’s filled with nice large brick buildings and a full basketball court.
“Aww, it’s just sad. From the high school to the graveyard that’s where they go,” said Harry.
“Ain’t that the truth,” Aunt Linda licks her lips and smacks her gums.
They pass by the conversation like it’s an everyday one while my heart sits heavy at the thought of kids dying for no reason. It’s the truth though and I need to hear it and remind myself that I’m lucky to live in Seattle where the nearest high school breeds a collection of astute, well read, intelligent students. Here the students succumb to the city, to the gangs, to the life. I suppose I should say here that these are young black kids, because this is part of the inner city of St. Louis.
We drive on and away from the cemetery, the high school, and the sadness. There are still more run-down houses lined by cars with broken windows and plastic sheeting to shelter their insides from the cold.   
“I’m right off of Skinker, not too far now,” Jean says.
So I keep an eye out for Skinker, which I can’t help but think is a horrible name and my fifteen year-old self keeps saying stinker and shrinker.
After a right onto Skinker, my eyes dart from house to apartment complex to house. Some are boarded up still on this street, but most look okay. There are deep brown apartments with dark chocolate awnings and I pray to God that we are not staying there because I’m sure it has roaches. We turn off of Skinker onto the street where those apartments are and pull into the parking lot of Alpha Terrace, the complex right next door.
Relief sweeps over me. These ones look clean, comfortable, and well lit. From the car I can see security at the door and gated parking. Once we unload the bags we enter the building to what is actually a front desk run by residents of the community, a senior citizens community. Roaming the halls and lounging in the group hall are older citizens of the community, cheerful and sitting playing cards or pool.
There are introductions at the front as we sign in as guests.
“Oh, this is my sister and my niece,” like she’s showing us off to these people.
They smile and nod, but not much more.
We take an elevator up one floor to the real first floor and step off to see long dark blue-carpeted hallways with long streaks of oil and dirt. A short walk down the hall reveals to me little cards with the day of the week attached to every door.
“Oh, that’s so we know the residents are still with us. We check to see if they’ve changed the day to the current one, if not, we check in on ‘em.”
Apartment 109 is hers and I can smell the smoke before we enter.
I should have known, I think as we enter the apartment.
I gasp for one last breath of fresh air before we enter, though I realize it’s not going to hold me for longer than it’s gonna take me to step over the threshold.
The apartment is filled with smoke and white walls. There is very little art but there is a cascade of plants near the one large window out onto the street.
Her furniture is made of the same old grainy plywood I always see in all of the black houses I go to.
There is a deep strong smoky smell that I fear is going to sting my lungs and immediately lodge a cold into them. My thoughts return to my younger days when my mom used smoking as a punishment. If I was a difficult child for any reason she would take to smoking in the middle of the living room where the smoke wouldn’t filter and would creep under the door to my room. I hated her for it sometimes and would choke, cough, and sneeze from the fumes.
I was a sick child. Sick all of the time.
Tired barely describes the feeling of my body heavy and burdened by a long morning of traveling and soon I curl up on her velvet pink couch and suffer through dreams interrupted by screams from the TV and my Aunties reminiscing back and forth.
We are waiting for Linda to arrive. She is the last remaining sister. These are the three children left of seven siblings, Tina, Charles – also called Buddy, Carolyn, Shirley – also called Jean, Eddie Jr., Bruce, and Linda, the others have all passed, most recently Uncle Bruce. He is the real reason for this trip, the catalyst for everyone to stop saying they’re going to come visit and actually do it.
I have been saying that I was gonna fly in for the last four years ever since my mom passed away, but each year something came up or money would be tight and it was never the right time.
Aunt Tina called a few days before Christmas and said, “Nicole, I’m sorry to tell you, but your Uncle Bruce passed away.” My immediate reaction was nothing. I had no feeling toward it because I had never met him. I had seen one picture and heard a couple of stories, but never knew more, but was sad for her, sad that she lost yet another sibling. They were now down to three.
This is why she called, because not only had he passed, but they were gonna have a family get together before anymore of them went “underground.”
There seemed no better time to go and with my flexible work schedule and extra Southwest miles I bought my ticket the next day.  
Aunt Linda arrived late, about three hours late, which means those dreams of mine lasted an extra few longer than I expected.
When she arrived, her face was just as I remembered, high forehead with milk chocolate skin, and long silky straight black hair. She is the only one with a thin frame out of the four of us. Behind her walks in her husband Tommy, dark as night with a sweet smile.
There are hugs and kisses and “I can’t believe it’s you! It’s been too long, let’s not let it be this long again!”
We sit and talk and decide where the night will take us because it’s already getting late and we are all a little hungry.
We pile into Tommy’s ’98 black Cadillac and head across town to Sam’s Club, then Walmart where I throw in a basket the best looking fruits you can possibly find at a Walmart to tide me over for a couple of days, and then we decide to dine at Applebees.
The food is surprisingly good and we all reminisce on all the little details about not seeing each other and how we all look a like, but we certainly don’t look our ages.
Tina is the eldest, Jean is in the middle of the seven, and Linda is the youngest spanning ten years with Tina at 65.
“I’m 45!” Shouts Jean.
“Guuuuurl, no you not,” says Linda.
“Yes, I am and I will be till the day I am under this ground!”
The sisters all nod and let her be 45 if that’s what she wants.
We eat fast a quietly like we are starving children led to a feast. When we are done we decide tomorrow’s plans, pile back into the car and drive back to Etzel Ave. to get ready for family the next day.
I blow up my mattress in the tiny living room and inhale the musty fumes of old Vendetta 9mm’s and drift off, excited to meet the rest of the family come tomorrow.