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.