I’ve always been afraid of the dark. Ever since I was a kid and I accidentally got locked in the outhouse. In the middle of the night. The early evening rain had trickled down to a slow drizzle, leaving the air sticky, heavy. like it was pushing down on my tiny frame and making the smell of stale urine and feces almost unbearable. Plugging my nose with one hand, I beat the rickety old wooden door with the other. And then I waited.....The haunting sound of a lonely old owl filled the air. "Whoo." Whoo is it?" "It's me," I cried, screaming and hollering until my voice was too hoarse to muster up anything but a whisper! "ME!" But my cries were met only by an eerie silence. I began to imagine the nocturnal beast with its large head, short hooked bill, and strong talons. Swooping silently down. Ready to snatch, squeeze, and kill its prey. I curled myself up into a ball. Still and quiet. Praying for it to go away. It was a long time, after that night before I could sleep without the light on. Of course, I never told my friends. They'd only have laughed and said something like, "big boys don't need no light when they's sleepin." So, I kept it all to myself. But Grandma knew. She did everything she could to help. She even bought me one of those glow-in-the-dark shirts to wear to bed at night. Oh, how I wish I had that shirt now. I'm standing here, a grown man, in a lonely desolate alleyway. All around me there is nothing by blackness. There's not a single star in the sky to light my way. 'The darkness begins to weigh heavy on my shoulders, and I start to stumble. I struggle against gravity, gasping for air in the inky void. My heart beats loudly from the adrenaline coursing through my veins. Building to a crescendo and drowning out the voices in my head that are telling me not to be afraid of the noise but to welcome it as proof that I am still alive. I don't need proof. I'm well aware of my futile existence. I fall to the ground praying, “Please God, make it stop!" For a split second, I think my prayers have been answered, but then the beating gets getting louder and louder. "Thump. Thump. Thump. And so, I just lay there. Mourning what I once had. Yearning for just a glimpse of the lost innocence of my childhood. And then it hit me. It was all just an illusion. There is no innocence in this broken world that we live in. 

I used to love waking up at the crack of dawn, while the early morning air was crisp and dewy, slightly aromatic. I’d throw my curtains open, hang my head out the window, and stand there, intoxicated by the smell of the flowers blooming in the garden. I'd cup my hand to my ear, listening for the faint chirping of the birds returning home, and the sound of the tiny frogs emitting their unique peeping sound. All were signs that spring had finally sprung, and I wasn’t about to miss a minute of it. I’d quickly throw on my clothes and run down the stairs. “Morning Grandma,” I’d call out, always making sure to give her a quick peck on the cheek. “Is that bacon I smell?” I knew it was. It was a game we played. Every morning I’d distract her with a quick kiss, and then while she wasn’t looking, I’d scoop a mouth-watering piece of bacon straight from the frying pan. It was sizzling hot and would burn the roof of my mouth. I’d jump up and down on one foot, fanning my face, all dramatic like, and then I’d sneak the last few pieces as I quickly ran for the door. “Come back here right now young man” she’d holler. Like she was all mad and stuff. “I mean it, mister. You know that’s not a proper breakfast! And for goodness’ sake Ezekiel Keegan Ishmael Pollard, put some shoes on!!” She always used my full name when she was mad. But I’d pretend not to hear, laughing silently, almost choking on the last bits of bacon in my mouth. I loved to push her buttons. She’d turn all red in the face. Like Mt St Helens about to erupt. And then she’d grab my shoes and pretend to throw them at me. Sometimes she’d toss them in my direction. She always missed. Well, almost always. I winced as I felt a small goose egg forming on the back of my head.

 The thing about Grandma and I was that we had love-hate relationship. At least on the surface. We loved each other but there were times, especially lately, when we just couldn’t stand being in the room together. Not even for five minutes without wanting to tear each other to bits. But we were family, the only family we had. Especially since Momma had passed on. We needed each other.  I didn’t have many friends. I was shy and introverted. A dreamer. The kids at school labeled me a “Geek.” “Nerdy.” And I was. I mean I was the epitome of everything the word implies. A quiet, scrawny kid with glasses. Braces. Awkward mannerisms. The greasy hair, braces, pasty white skin, and freckled cheeks were outdone only by the ghastly outfits I wore. The blue with green collar shirt, green pants, white socks, and black shoes. But things changed quickly. Puberty reared its ugly head, as it typically does, around the seventh grade. Grandma found it challenging dealing with my sudden mood swings and attitude. Gone were the greasy hair and braces. The ghastly outfits were replaced by brand-name clothes. I had “swagger.” More like “cockiness” if you’d asked my grandma.  My sleep was often, long, and inconsistent. I would lay my head down on my pillow, usually at the crack of dawn, and I’d awaken in the late afternoon. The only thing I gazed at for hours on end anymore, was the television or one of my many video consoles. I looked around at the various video games that I had stacked neatly in my bedroom. Thanks to the latest technology, I had the luxury of playing them on my new cellphone. When I wasn’t sleeping or on my phone, I was out the door like a flash. I barely had time to say good morning anymore. My Grandma didn’t seem to understand that I was growing up. On the rare occasion that we did sit down and talk, it almost always led to shouting and one or the other of us stomping off in a fit of anger. I had no time to hear her talk about her day or to listen to her lecture me about my new friends and the choices we made. Hanging out in the city. The concrete jungle she called it where lusts of the flesh were easily appeased by offers of instant gratification. “Remember what happened to your mother,” she’d say with that “tone” in her voice. I remembered. How could I forget? 


Grandma made sure she taught me the word. She sent me to Sunday School from the time I was little until I was old enough to make up my own mind. It must have been hard for her when I turned my back on everything she had tried so hard to instill in me. But she didn’t preach or lecture. “Willpower,” she said. “It’s the will to make your own decisions, but it’s also the power that comes with those decisions to bring either good or bad into your life. Don’t you dare blame God or even the devil for things you brought upon yourself through your choices!" And she meant it. I could tell by the way she shook her finger at me as she said it. There weren’t many times my Grandma shook her finger at me, but that was one of them. She also taught me about respect. “A little bit of respect goes a long way let me tell you”, she said. I just sat there, rolling my eyes, but secretly I knew she was right. It was one of the three things I learned from my new friends. I called them the three r’s. Respect. React. And RUN!! There were actually four ‘r’s” “Retaliate” But of course I couldn’t tell Grandma that. “Vengeance is mine saith the Lord,” she’d say. And then she’d give me the look. Trust me, no one wants “the look” Sorry Grandma, but sometimes in a world where it feels like there is so much injustice, you just have to take things into your own hands.


It was a Friday afternoon, and I was at one of the local coffee shops. I’d often hang out there when I was bored. I should have been in school, but I’d decided that school wasn’t for me. I needed “street smarts”. It was tricky enough maneuvering my way around the needles and empty bottles strewn everywhere, but there were five or six teenagers blocking the sidewalk. I had just left the coffee shop and was about to board the bus when a very shady-looking fellow with a razor scooter, backed right into me. Sending me flying and spilling hot coffee all down my shirt. He and his friends stood over me. They wanted to fight. So, here I was. Faced with the “three Rs.” It was obvious respect wasn’t going to work in this situation so that left me with two choices. To react or to run. I chose to react. I should have known that things wouldn’t go well. I was outnumbered. One of them pulled a knife on me. The others stood there laughing. They liked the fact that I had guts. I was given a choice to either join the gang or die.  I chose to join.    


We were known for our colors. All gangs were known for their colors. Red, Blue, Black. And swag. Custom-made, graphically violent t-shirts, and hoodies. I started in low-level gangs, stealing, peddling goods, and getting into fights. The offer of quick cash guns, cars, girls, money, muscle, was appealing to an impressionable young man. It gave me a false sense of empowerment. I’d always questioned how could I believe in a God who allowed such evil in this world? Ironically, I became a part of that evil. The streets were unsafe and unpredictable, but they served as a sanctuary. A home. And the gang became my new family. 


 I quickly learned, that on the streets, only the fittest survived. I started taking steroids. But I needed more than to be physically strong. I learned never to turn the other cheek. Forgiveness was a sign of weakness. Something my Grandma would never have understood.  


I never really had a father figure. He left two weeks before I was born. He just got up, walked out, and never came back. After that, there was a long procession of men in and out all the time. Like a revolving door. I could hear them coming up the stairs late at night. Always smelling like cheap cologne and booze. I buried my head under the pillow. Trying to muffle the sounds of shouting and screaming. The sound of her cries. She'd always greet me the next morning as if nothing happened. She’d hide her face so I couldn’t see the bruises. I saw. She started drinking and doing drugs herself. I’d come home from school and find her passed out drunk on the couch. Dirty needles. Empty beer bottles. I usually just made myself a sandwich out of whatever I could find and curled up beside her watching television till I fell asleep. I was only four or five. Grandma finally stepped in and took over. Thank God for Grandma. Grandma fought with my Mom over her drinking and other substance abuse. She told my Mom that it was no way to raise a child. . My Mom was too drunk or too stoned to even say goodbye when Grandma packed me into her car with my few belongings and drove away. She took me to live with her at her small but humble cottage by the lake.


Mama came to visit every week at first. Soon it became every second week, then once a month. Finally, I barely saw her at all and when I did it was by chance, once when Grandma and I went into the city. She left me in the car when she ran in to do an errand. I saw my Mom in the alleyway. Shooting up. I got out of the car. Grandma had told me not to do that. It’s a bad part of town she’d said. But I had to know if it was her. It was. She said hi and hugged me. There were tears in her eyes and I could tell she was sorry. But not sorry enough to change her lifestyle. I hugged her back and then ran quickly to the car. I didn’t tell Grandma. I knew if I did she’d never bring me into the city again so I just didn’t tell her. I heard her talking later about how she’d heard on the news they’d found a body in that very alleyway. Shot in an apparent drug deal gone bad. I didn’t even have to ask if it was her. Somehow I just knew it was. I don’t remember even crying. I think I was just thankful that I’d had a chance to say goodbye.                               


She’s gone now. My sweet Grandma. Suddenly and unexpectedly. Cause of death, a “coronary embolism,” they said. It was an obstruction, most likely a blood clot or some other foreign matter that got stuck while traveling through her bloodstream. I didn't care about the medical mumbo jumbo. All I knew was that her heart stopped and just like that, she was gone. No amount of praying or begging God could bring her back. And I could never take back my last words to her. Words that had been spoken in a fit of rage. I cried all the time as a child. I learned that tears can be cleansing. Cathartic. But now when I needed them most, they wouldn't come. I tried but. all I felt was an incredible sadness. Sadness and anger. I shook my fist at God. “Why? Why God? How can you claim to be such a loving and merciful God and yet allow such suffering?” I had never felt so broken. She was my only real family. I understood that now. All my street family was gone now too. I’d watched them one by one succumb to the streets. Either they’d ended up in jail or worse. Gang life had seemed so exciting at first but now I understood the futility of it all.   


 I never thought what it would be like not having grandma there for me. I knew the day would come when I’d be a man and leave home. But I’d always come back for visits. And when I did, I’d walk into the smell of freshly baked apple pie wafting through the air. And the sound of bacon sizzling. No matter how old I got I’d still sneak the last bit from the frying pan. And of course, she’d swat my hand away playfully like she always did. I knew the day would come when she wouldn’t be there anymore. I just thought when it did, I’d be more ready. How can you ever really be ready for something like that? I beat myself up over things I did in the past I felt shackled by all my past failures. By the choices, I’d made. And I laid there.  Mourning what I once had. Yearning for just a glimpse of the lost innocence of my childhood. And then it hit me. It was all just an illusion. There is no innocence in this broken world that we live in.

November 13, 2021 00:40

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Boutat Driss
04:35 Nov 21, 2021

a nice tale!


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Dakotah Hockley
06:51 Nov 17, 2021

Y so sad


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