A Little Less than God

Momma would be home any minute and I didn’t know how I was going to explain to her that in one day, Kiwi, Clarence and I had nearly burned the house down and broke Ma Dear’s antique bed. “We're gonna get a whooping for sure!” Kiwi yelled quickly before burying her face between her knees.

“Might as well pick a switch off the tree now,” Clarence said in a tone reminiscent of a soldier in one of those old black and white war movies me and granddaddy used to watch sometimes. But Clarence wasn’t a soldier, he was my younger brother who – like Kiwi and I – faced something much worse – an exhausted, disappointed mother who would turn into an irate one when she found out the big mess of a day we’d had. “I’m gonna pick three switches. One for each of us,” he said standing up. “Ain’t gonna be no sharing this time.”

“Where do you think you’re going?” I asked.

“To the tree, dummy! Where else am I gonna find a switch?”

“We’re not supposed to step off the porch, Clarence.”

“I know. It’s momma’s stupid rule and it don’t really matter right now considering we’re already in a bunch of trouble.” Clarence was standing up, facing me now. Still the soldier. The top of his head came just above my chin. His algae green eyes daring me to tell him no. So this is how it’s going to be between us now? Him ten and me going on thirteen. 

“Don’t step off the porch,” I insisted.

“What’s going to happen if I do?”

I didn’t know. “You don’t wanna find out,” I said, attempting to stand my ground. “Momma told us not to leave the front porch and that’s what we’re going to do.” I stepped closer to him, so close that I could feel his heart beating against my stomach and smell the watermelon Jolly Ranchers he’d eaten a moment before on his breath. We stood there like that for sometime; until we could no longer stand the closeness and the stench of musk and fried bologna that seemed to have seeped into our clothes due to an earlier attempt at making lunch and the feeble air conditioning unit in our tiny five room house.

Clarence stepped away and plopped himself next to Kiwi. He put his arm around her. “Just so you know. I’m not scared of you,” he told me. “This is all your fault anyway. When momma gets home, we’re pointing the finger at you.”

He was right. It was my fault. This was the first day of summer break and I was in charge.  For the first time, momma didn’t have much of a choice but to put our safety and well being for nine hours a day in the hands of God and me.                                    

Granddaddy died in February. He lived alone in another tiny house about a mile away. We used to spend our summer days with him while momma was in school or at work. He was old but a lot of fun and he had a bigger back yard than ours. There was always something for us to do at Grandaddy's house. He taught me and Clarence how to plant peppers and okra, play Bid Wiz, checkers, and write haikus.

He was always reading and writing. Something he said he did everyday because his own parents and grandparents never could. His grandparents had been slaves and his parents were never in school long enough to learn much. “Had to help kinfolk scrape out a livin’ in the fields,” he’d say. Momma was the same way. A lover of words and books. She and granddaddy were close. They were so much alike. He never gave up on her. That’s what momma kept saying at his funeral over and over again. “He never gave up on me.”

I think my momma loved him just a little less than God. But it’s strange. She didn’t cry at his funeral, even when a couple of his lady friends fell out over his casket carrying on like it was the end of the world. Well, it was the end of our world, I guess. The only world we knew. One with granddaddy at the center of it. He was like the sun. Something we could always count on. He was always rising. I guess we never thought about him "setting."

“I’m glad you’re a reader, Zeek,” he told me in November, sitting at his kitchen table working a crossword puzzle, “but you read too many comic books. It’s time you start reading about some real heroes.”

“Real heroes?”

“Follow me, Zeek,” he said, pushing his chair back and standing quicker than I thought he could. Granddaddy was old but not super old like other grandparents. He didn’t walk bent over like he was always looking for a lucky penny or cracks in the sidewalk. He didn’t forget thoughts as soon as they came in his head. He didn’t even have that old people smell. He just moved slowly. Deliberately, is the word, I think. It was like he didn’t lift a hand, blink an eye or move in anyway unless it was necessary. Momma says he was a thinker. A man of ideas that didn’t get to share them with the world. Only his family.

He wanted different  

For his fruit. They would ripen

So that they could shine                    

I followed him to his bedroom which was more like a storage room at a library. He didn’t sleep in there anyway; his red and white striped sofa in the front room pulled out into a bed. “It’s 1977 Zeek and times are changing,” he told me. “A new bookstore just opened specializing in books written by and for black folk. Can you believe that? Right here in Dallas and some folks think we don’t read.” He was pushing the five boxes that sat in front of his tallest bookshelf out the way. Between an end table and the bookshelf was a large shopping bag.

He pulled out a yellow hard bound book. It was thin; maybe a quarter of an inch thick. “This is for you, son. That Superman you always reading about don’t have nothing on Paul Robeson,” he told me, his face shining with excitement.

I turned the book over to see its cover. On it was Paul Robeson’s name in bold letters, with three sketched images of him – one as a boy, another with him singing, and another with him dressed up in his role as Othello. “Thanks Papa.”

“How many books do you have now?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I tried to think quickly so I could respond fast enough for granddaddy. He was leaning in close to me with great anticipation. I didn’t want to keep him waiting. “Let’s see. I have a couple of dozen comics. Momma buys them for me all the time. I also have all the books you’ve given me for my birthdays. Those are the only ones I own. Can’t keep the ones I check out from the library.”

“All that’s about to change then,” he told me sternly but lovingly. “You’re almost a man now. You need to be reading about great men. Great black men who used their minds to shape a better world and who had more courage and strength than Superman, Batman and those fake characters you reading about. I never liked fiction. It’s time you wake up to the real world, Zeek.”

“You know what, Papa," I said, getting a revelation. "Somebody needs to write a book about you. You’re a great man."

I don’t know why I said it, but I meant it. I would have taken it back if I knew he would react the way he did. If I knew I would offend him. Before I could move, my granddaddy, the calmest, most gentle person I know, grabbed me by the shoulders and squeezed them hard like he was trying to make my blood ooze out of my pores. He looked me dead in my eyes and started crying, “I am not great. I am not great. Look at me. I’m not great!”

I didn’t know what to do. He was scaring me and I felt so, so sorry for him. I started crying too…out of fear and pain. He kept squeezing. The more he cried, the more he squeezed. Kiwi and Clarence ran in the room from the backyard. 

“Papa, ‘Zekiel, what’s wrong?!” Clarence hollered.

“You’re hurting me, Papa,” I managed to say. “You’re hurting me.”  He wouldn’t let go. His eyes were closed now and he continued to sob.

Kiwi, with her sliver of a self, ran and stood between us. She looked up at me and said, “It’s gonna be alright.” She then turned to Papa and wrapped her arms around his waist. Like Kiwi, he was thin as a rail. He was the one who’d given her the name “Kiwi.” She was born two months premature and upon seeing her in the hospital for the first time, declared to momma and the doctors that she was going to be just fine. There was not a thing to worry about. His granddaughter was going to make it. She was tiny, brown, covered in little fuzz and would grow up to be just as sweet and unique as those exotic kiwi fruits he’d seen in a fancy grocery store in North Dallas.

“Papa, let ‘Zekiel go and stop crying now,” Kiwi calmly ordered her distraught grandfather, with the authority of an adult. A moment later, he released me and collapsed on a large box of books. This would be the last time we’d be in his home. A place where each of us made many good memories. He was hospitalized with a brain hemorrhage and never fully recovered. He spent his last few months on earth in a coma at Parkland Hospital.  Momma took us to visit him most every day. I still don’t understand what happened. And I still blame myself.

Two weeks ago, Momma, daddy’s baby sister Aunt Reena, and her cousin Jeanie, finally went over to clean out his house. It was sitting vacant too long and the man that owned the house was ready to rent it again. There wasn’t much but books, clothes, and records.

He only had one cast iron skillet, a large pot, and a set of dishes and glasses. “Walter was the simplest man on earth,” Aunt Reena, the complete opposite of granddaddy, with her round body and house full of things she barely used, said after dropping off several boxes of his old books. “If it wasn’t for you Sheila, I think he would have been content to live on a mattress or in a cardboard box, long as he had some books with him and a stranger to listen to him talk about nothing all day.”

She made me mad saying that about the best man I ever knew. Her own brother. Momma told Aunt Reena she’d better leave. That she had to start sorting clothes for our weekly trip to the washateria. That’s how most things ended with Aunt Reena. People were always looking at her like they were confused or annoyed. Not so much for her big body that she always dressed in clothes too small for her, but her big mouth. She said whatever popped into her head. She wasn't a thinker, like Papa. 

“Jeanie, let’s get going and leave Sheila to her work,” Aunt Reena said pulling her car keys out of her purse. “I don’t know what you going to do with all these boxes of books and thangs? There’s barely enough room in this little hot house for you and your kids.”

“We’re going to read them!” Kiwi yelled, dancing around the boxes. “Every one, every one…ain’t that right momma?!”

“Whew! Looks like you got your hands full, baby. I’ma let you get back to your life.”

“Yes, you do that Reena,” Momma said opening the door, her hands sitting on her hips the way she does when she’s mad or impatient.

“It’s good seeing you cousin,” Jeanie said, kissing momma on the cheek. They grew up together. “We’ll get the other stuff over to the Goodwill. Now, you just let me know if you need anything. Between work and school, you gonna need some help. Call me. I mean it.”

Momma closed the door and started going through the boxes. Kiwi was still dancing around. “Zeek, you and Clarence help me move these boxes. Kiwi, find something to do that doesn’t require skipping, hopping, running, singing, or jumping.” Kiwi stopped a moment then picked up our raggedy little cat, Queen, and left the room. Poor Queen, I thought. She wasn't going to last long in this house. She was our third cat and was sure to run off when she had the chance. 

Clarence opened a box and started pulling out a few books. “I told you to move the boxes, not open them Clarence,” Momma snapped.

“But I want to see what’s in them.”

“That’s for later. We have other things to do right now. Take the big one to my room and the other to yours…now, Clarence.”

“Yes, ma’m.”

The book about Paul Robeson was at the top of the stack Clarence pulled from the box. I hadn’t seen it since that last day at granddaddy’s.  I couldn’t move.

The color yellow

Should be light, bright and joyous

Yet I feel dark blue

“Zeek, help your brother please and bring me the dirty clothes basket from your room,” Momma told me. “Zeek, I’m talking to you.” All I could see was granddaddy’s face, distorted by shame and pain. “Zeek?!”

Clarence punched me in the shoulder. He was small but strong. Definitely the light weight champ at our house. “Hey, Momma’s talking to you. Pick up a box, man.”

“You didn’t have to hit him Clarence,” she said letting out a sigh. “You alright Zeek?” she asked, walking toward me.

“It worked didn’t it,” Clarence retorted proudly…under his breath.

“You okay, Zeek?” she asked again, turning my face to hers. “It's okay, son. I miss him, too.”

“Really, Momma?” I was looking at her now. Looking through her. “It’s hard to tell."

Clarence scurried out of the room with the smaller box in his arms. The larger one, he pushed with his right foot. He knew what was coming or what should have come. But Momma didn’t raise her voice or hand to me. She just leaned in closely and kissed me on the cheek. “Go on and help your brother.”

That night, I dug around for the Paul Robeson book and hid it under the mattress of the bed Clarence and I shared. Each day, I would take it out when I had the room to myself and stare at the cover, trace my fingers across the title and illustrations, then hold it close and cry, remembering that day, remembering my granddaddy. I cried for myself and my mother who couldn’t bring herself to do so. Surely, she was crumbling inside. Surely, her body couldn’t hold the shock and great sorrow of her father dying so suddenly for too much longer. It had been nearly four months.

Yesterday, after church, Momma took us to Wyatt’s Cafeteria for dinner and ice cream at Baskin Robbins. We rarely ate out. She said she wanted to treat us to something special to celebrate how well we did in school this year and to kick-off the long summer break. “Starting tomorrow, Zeek is in charge,” she announced with a mouthful of rainbow sherbert. “You hear me Clarence and Kiwi?”  

“Yes, ma’m.”

“I don’t want a bunch of fussing and fighting. And you can’t call me at work a million times a day. I don’t want my supervisor complaining about you.”  

“Yes, ma’m.”

“I’ll leave to catch the seven o’clock bus every morning and should be stepping off the bus to come home no later than six o’clock. We can do this, right?”

“Yes, ma’m.”

Momma smiled and hopped up from her seat. “Alright, finish those cones and let’s head on over to the grocery store. Each of you gets to pick out one treat.”

Kiwi danced ahead of us out the door and onto the sidewalk. Momma took Clarence and me by the hand. We walked that way the three blocks to the grocery store. I didn’t mind. I felt like a little boy, not like someone about to turn thirteen. And I liked it.

The child inside me

cries out, wanting to be seen

life for him – a breeze

Clarence sat up in bed that night reading a comic book. He still hadn’t figured out how to read in his head, so I had to endure The Uncanny X-Men with him, whether I wanted to or not. I used to tease him about it until he threatened to tell my girlfriend that I didn’t stop peeing in the bed until I was eleven. The year she started letting me sit next to her at lunch. The year we both shared our first kiss underneath the monkey bars.

“Why don’t you take that book you been hiding out from under the mattress and read it, ‘Zekiel?” he asked.

“How’d you know about the book?” I asked, turning to him.

“I’m the younger brother. It’s my job to be nosey,” he wisecracked.

After a moment, I let out a sigh and rolled off the bed and onto the hardwood floor. I reached under the mattress but didn’t feel the book. “Where’d you put it Clarence?” I asked, standing up, attempting to move him with a hard stare. He let out a big laugh, then reached under his pillow and pulled out the book.

“I thought you were hiding a dirty magazine or something,” he said, tossing the book to me. “That’s just a book about some man I never heard of before.”

“Me either. It was a gift from Papa.” I could feel myself welling up inside but sucked the sadness up, so Clarence wouldn’t have something to tease me about later.

“He must have been important if Papa wants you to know about him. I wish he left a book for me.” Clarence resumed reading his comic book aloud. Knowing I wouldn’t be able to concentrate, I resigned myself to putting the book under my pillow and turning in for the night. The last thing I remember hearing as I drifted off to sleep was momma yelling from the other room for one of us to turn the light off and go to bed.

Momma woke me up this morning to go over her expectations one last time. “Now, Zeek, you know the rules: don’t leave the house or the front porch; don’t cook on the stove because I don’t want you blowing yourself up trying to light the gas burner; don’t sit in front of the TV all day long; make sure you all read, draw or play a board game, alright?”

“Yes, ma’m,” I told her, growing a little nervous.

“You can do this, son. I’m counting on you,” she gave me a big hug. “We’re going to have lots of fun on the weekends, okay? There are some nice free festivals happening all summer and I’m signing you all up for swimming lessons at the Y.”

“Momma, you’re going to miss your bus.”

“You’re right. Okay. Let me get out of here,” she grabbed her purse and keys and rushed to the door. “Goodness, it’s hot. Feels like it’s already 80 degrees. It’s supposed to get up to the mid 90’s today. You be sure to put the fan from my room in the living room if the air conditioner starts acting up. I don’t want you burning up all day.” At saying this, she let out a big sigh, “Jesus!”

“Go on, mom. We’ll be fine,” I said, nudging her off the porch. She trotted off a bit then stopped to look back at me. For the first time, she looked scared. Was she questioning herself or maybe she was missing Papa? I put on a brave face for her, then saw the bus turning the corner toward the bus stop that was a block from our home. “Momma, the bus! Hurry!”

“Bye baby!”

“Bye momma.” I stood on the porch and watched her nearly miss the bus. It had pulled off but her screams to “Stop” caused the bus driver to brake.  She boarded the bus, leaving me to be the man of the house. Our only option. I stood on the porch for a while to take in the awakening of my neighborhood. A couple of stray dogs were taking turns sniffing through litter strewn in a vacant lot two houses down. Mr. Weeks was already out tending to his immaculate lawn and flower beds. Marcus and Wayne Ballard were having their daily morning run through the neighborhood. They were both training to be boxers.

“Mornin’ Youngblood!” Wayne said, as they ran past our house.  His baby sister is in my class. She’s had a crush on me since we were in first grade. I don’t like her that way though because she still sucks her thumb and has bucked-teeth.

“Zeek, Clarence won’t let me watch Tom and Jerry!” Kiwi screamed through the screen door.  They’re up already? I was hoping I could get a head start on the Paul Robeson book.  

And so it began.  

I carry the weight

Of absence; search for the strength

To balance alone

I walked back into the house defeated. This was not going to work. I could already tell but somehow we managed to get through breakfast – each of us eating a large bowl of our favorite cereal. The three of us sat in front of the television for a couple hours watching back to back episodes of Tom and Jerry and The Beverly Hillbillies. Clarence and Kiwi were enjoying it. Laughing every couple of minutes and reenacting what they saw. They were quickly getting on my nerves.  

“We’ve got the whole house to ourselves. What are we going to do next, Zeek?” Kiwi asked, surprisingly turning off the TV.  They both looked at me blankly, waiting for instruction. I didn’t answer.

“If Papa was here, we’d play the word game, right?” Kiwi asked.

“Probably,” Clarence replied solemnly.

We sat in silence for a moment. Kiwi crawled into my lap. “Zeek, come on, let’s play the word game. Please.”

“Yeah, come on Zeek,” Clarence agreed.

“I don’t want to.”

“I’ll start,” Clarence declared, standing up slowly. He cleared his throat. “Five words. Minimum of two syllables that begin with the letter L,” he said trying to mimic Papa. “Kiwi, you’re first. Remember, syllables are the beats you find in words. Go!”

“That one is too hard. I can only think of three words,” Kiwi whined.

“You can do it punkin,” Clarence said, calling Kiwi by one of Papa’s many pet names for her.

“Stop, Clarence,” I urged.

“Lemon…laughter…..and…….lovey,” Kiwi said, clapping her hands with each word.

“Now, Kiwi,” Clarence continued as Papa, “lovey is not a word. You gonna have to try again.” He was walking like Papa now.

“Stop it, Clarence!” I yelled.

“Man, what is wrong with you?”

“Stop making fun of Papa!” Before I knew it, I had grabbed Clarence by his shirt. He pushed me off of him and punched me in the chest. Stunned, I pushed him back onto the couch and jumped on top of him, holding him down. “Stop making fun of Papa!”

Kiwi started screaming at us to stop, but we ignored her. Clarence managed to kick me off of him and ran to our room. I chased him. Kiwi followed crying and yelling. He tried to slam our bedroom door but my anger had given me strength I didn’t know I had and I pushed the door in. Now I know what David Banner meant on the Incredible Hulk when he begged people not to make him angry. But the truth is, I wasn’t as much angry as I was sad. I was crying inside. Clarence was crouched behind our bed. I lunged at him but he managed to get away and took off to the bedroom Momma and Kiwi shared.

“Calm down, Zeek!” Clarence begged. “I was not making fun of Papa!”

“Yes you were!” Kiwi chimed in.

“Shut up, Kiwi. I wasn’t!”

I managed to knock him onto Momma and Kiwi’s bed – an antique that belonged to Papa’s mother. I punched him and he hit me back. We rolled on the bed wrestling and fussing until it broke, leaving us on the floor, exhausted. 

“Ya’ll gonna get it,” Kiwi declared.

“Zeek, man,” Clarence cried, “I wasn’t doing that. I wasn’t making fun of Papa.”

“Yes, you were.”

He tried to catch his breath. “No. I wouldn’t do that. I swear. I wasn’t making fun. I was…I was just remembering. That’s all. I was just remembering him.”  I reached out to my brother and we fell into each others arms crying. Kiwi squeezed herself between us and did the same. We must have looked a sight! It was that ugly, hard kind of crying you do when you don’t care who sees or hears you. The kind that causes snot and tears to mingle together on your face and tastes of salt and goo.  

We were listless after that. Partly because the air conditioner had finally gone out and I think we were just tired in our hearts. We moved back to the front room. Clarence retrieved the Paul Robeson book for me, some comic books for him, and coloring books for Kiwi and we spent the next couple of hours in silence.

When it was time for lunch, I couldn’t bring myself to stop reading the Paul Robeson book. His life did read like an incredible superhero’s. His father had been born a slave but ran away to freedom and he had the nerve to earn a college degree and be fearless at a time when it was dangerous to be black, especially black and smart.

“Zeek, you want some vienna sausages, cheese, and crackers?” Kiwi asked. I mumbled something. She took it as a yes and brought a plate of the stinky little weenies and placed them next to me on the floor.

This courage was passed down to Paul and his brothers and sisters who were more impressive than the Fantastic Four. In very difficult times, Paul Robeson showed courage, intelligence, talent, and love for all people.

“You want some tea or apple juice?” Kiwi asked, interrupting my reading, yet again. I looked at her clearly this time and replied, “No, please leave me alone.” She stuck her tongue out at me and returned to the kitchen. Clarence joined her.

How does the son of a runaway slave become a valedictorian of a fancy college, a great athlete, lawyer, actor, singer, and civil rights pioneer? I thought.  He was undeniably a great man. The same could have been said about Papa in a smaller way. He was the smartest, kindest person I knew. He was a good father and granddaddy. He did a lot of things his parents and grandparents never could. Yes, Papa was great. I was hurting again knowing that he didn’t believe this.

My thoughts soon turned to danger when I smelled the smoke that was now coming from the kitchen. Clarence was attempting to fry a few pieces of bologna. Like me, he hated vienna sausages.  We opened up all the windows, hoping to get the smell of smoke and bologna out of momma’s house. Kiwi was right – we were in more trouble than we could imagine.

So, now, here we sit on the front porch waiting for Momma’s return. I had failed her.

We pass the time watching squirrels, butterflies, and blue jays make their way around Mr. Weeks’ and our yard. Kiwi falls asleep in Clarence’s lap. I try and think of a way to explain to Momma what happened. Should I lie or scare her with the truth? Finally, the bus appears and she steps off in her brown polyester pants and white shirt. My heart sinks.  I nudge Clarence and Kiwi. Momma is carrying a bag of groceries and she seems to be running. I start to step off the front porch but stop myself, not wanting to break yet another one of her rules.

Once she catches sight of us on the porch waiting for her, she drops the bag of groceries and runs even faster.  The three of us are standing now…anxious…scared…doing our best not to call attention to our smell or bruises. Momma dashes to our tiny house and leaps onto the front porch, pulling us into her arms. “My babies!” Kiwi quickly regurgitates the details of our day, but Momma doesn’t speak. Instead, she begins to cry for her father - our Papa - for the very first time.  

One cannot dictate

The ins and outs of pain; it

Unfolds in due time