Escape Velocity

“Hey, boy. What’s that you openin’?” his mother asked. “Who said you could go through my mail?”

“It’s not your mail, Ma. It’s addressed to me.”

He couldn’t keep the corners of his mouth from turning toward the ceiling as he snuck another peek at the royal blue Coleridge University leaping cougar mascot printed on the white package, and his name, Everett J. Forrest, typewritten on an adhesive label.

It was the “fat envelope” that every college-bound student anxiously waits for. The one jam-packed with information that only a student who has been accepted for admission needs.

Everett, who was dressed in the Kelly green coveralls he wore to his Saturday job painting rich people’s homes and the occasional office building, was eager to get to work so he could tell his boss the news.

Mr. Harris won’t believe this! he thought after reading the first paragraph of the acceptance letter three times to convince himself that he wasn’t hallucinating:

Dear Mr. Forrest,

Congratulations. On behalf of the faculty of the College of Arts and Science of Coleridge University, it is with great pleasure that I inform you of your admission to the Class of 1968…”

 

The words sounded in his head like the rich white men with whom he’d seen Mr. Harris sharing a quick laugh. Theirs was an easy laugh. Forrest had paid enough attention to understand that their surface-level congeniality came in two varieties. One type helped the newly wealthy awkwardly navigate their feelings about the gulf between themselves and people like himself and Mr. Harris. And there was the kind exuded by the well-born, who paid no heed to the gulf because, to them, it was, like air—always there and usually not worth noting.

“What’s got you grinnin’ so wide?” his mother wanted to know. “You look like a sissy with a bag of dicks.”

“I got into Coleridge,” he said as he continued to thumb through the package. Everett ignored the insult. He’d become expert at absorbing shotgun blasts of hurtful words whose angry pellets were aimed at black males in general but tore through him in particular because he happened to be there.

He focused his mind on Mr. Harris’ words:

“Don’t get too crazy about an acceptance letter. What you should be keeping an eye out for is the slip of paper telling you how much free money they plan to give you. That’s how you judge where you’ll be in the fall.”

“Ain’t you gon’ be late for work?” his mother asked, snapping him back into the then and there. “You know the rent is due today, so don’t be late gettin’ home again and have the landlord lookin’ at me stupid.”

“Yesss!”

She cut her eyes at him, but he didn’t even notice her stubbing out her Virginia Slims 120’s menthol. He didn’t take heed to her standing behind him, hands on her hips and cutting through him with a white-hot glare. His attention was focused on the letter with the words FINANCIAL AID AWARD in big, bold letters.

“Oh my god! I got a full ride! It’s official. I can really go.”

She snatched the sheet of paper to take a look for herself, then attempted to smother the idea of it with a blanket soaked through with piss. “You ain’t goin’ nowhere but to paint some walls so you can bring some money up in this house and carry your share of the load around here.”

“With that way of thinking, I’ll never have a career,” he said. “All I’ll ever have is a J.O.B., so the most I’ll ever be is just over broke.”

“There’s plenty broke people ‘round here. What make you so special?”

“C’mon, ma! Like President Johnson said on TV the other day, too many Americans live on the outskirts of hope. And I’m not tryna be one of those people if I can help it. It’s the sixties. Times are changing. But we’ll never have more than the crumbs that fall from somebody else’s table if we don’t let go of this poverty mindset.”

She reared back and slapped him so hard that his lower lip started to bleed.

“Who da hell you think you talkin’ to? You can let Clay Harris fill your head all full of bullshit if you want to, but I’ll be damned if you gon’ stand here under my roof and look down your nose at me. And who is he anyway? Went off to college on his fancy football scholarship, and look at what it got him. He right back here—paintin’ walls, cuttin’ grass and smilin’ up in whitey’s face. Since when you gotta go to college for that shit? And here you go, following in his footsteps. So what, you gon’ major in House Nigga Studies too, so you can come back here and show the rest of us how to properly step and fetch and bow and scrape just like him?

Yeah, he got a house in Darby out with the white folks. So what? I hear it ain’t even that big. And his car ain’t even a Cadillac or a deuce and a quarter. What the fuck is a BMW anyway? Shit. Now you wanna run behind his ol’ tired ass like a lil’ faggot-ass puppy.”

She might as well have been talking to herself. The loud clap of her palm against his face temporarily deafened him. And his well-honed spiritual defense mechanisms kicked in.

Everett could see her lips moving. But he couldn’t hear her over the ringing in his ears and the dose of calm he was trying to pour on the hurt, anger, and confusion that aimed to fill all his empty places like the sounds of a fourth-grade symphony reverberating off the walls of an elementary school auditorium.

A tear rolled down his cheek.

“I just wanna make the most of my opportunities,” Everett said when he saw her lips stop moving. “I could come out of college making some real money, help us move out of here, get our own house, not have to worry about nobody’s food stamps.”

“So, you too good for food stamps all of a sudden? I didn’t hear you saying that shit last night when you was eating your second plate of my lima beans and pig tails. I didn’t hear nuthin’ but you smackin’ your greedy-ass lips.”

“I was hungry last night ‘cause that was my first meal of the day. Twenty years from now, I don’t want somebody else choosing what and when I eat because they set my food budget. I mean, I used to wish for the day when I could have milk—and not the nasty powdered kind—in my cereal instead of water. But I don’t even wanna see cereal anymore.

I’m going to Coleridge so someday my kids can have pancakes, and waffles, and bacon, and sausage, and orange juice, like white folks eat. And so they never have to work after school and on Saturdays to pay the part of the rent that welfare won’t and to keep food in the icebox when the food stamps run out. I don’t see what’s wrong with that.”

Seeing that Everett was no longer intimidated by her physical presence, nor cowed by her shrill, cattle prod voice, she took a different tack.

“Oh, so you just gon’ walk smooth outta here and leave the rest of us suckas in the dust. But answer me this: What is me and Taneesha s’posed to do, huh? Ends is barely meetin’ as it is.”

“Ma, you could always—”

“Don’t you fix your mouth to tell me what I can do, dammit!”

“But you just…”

She threw up her hands and turned her back to him. But she wasn’t done.

“You know what? You just like yo daddy. Sorry muthafuckas… Just gon’ use me and run off first chance you get. Okay, college boy. Let me tell you this here: It’s them or it’s us; you leave, ain’t no need in bothering coming back. ‘Cause we’ll already know what kind of nigga you is.”

That verbal slap hurt just as bad as the physical one. It was a thunderclap too loud and powerful to ignore. But Everett refused to give her the satisfaction of seeing how it affected him. He went to his room to gather himself and put the envelope away.

“Thanks for your support,” he said as he walked back through the living room and headed for the front door.

On his walk to the bus stop, he could feel another warm tear stream down his cheek and could taste the blood still leaking from his busted lower lip.

What kind of nigger I am? he thought. I ain’t nobody’s nigger. And I’m not gon’ let her or anybody else make me into one. Coleridge is finally letting black people in; I’m not stupid enough to turn down that offer and stay in this uniform for the rest of my life.

Everett worked his entire shift like a warm-blooded robot. His arms were fully engaged in putting paint on the walls of the six-bedroom Victorian house that I couldn’t buy even if I had the ducats. But his mind was still back in the cramped kitchen of the two-bedroom row house where he lived, sparring with his mother.

He spent the entire seven hours rehashing the conversation, wishing he’d done a better job defending his position (and his face), and wondering, How could she be so short-sighted, selfish, and stupid?

“Everett. Everett! What in the world are you doing, son?”

Mr. Harris’ booming baritone snapped him out of his day-long flashback. Only then did the teenage boy look down and notice that he’d begun painting over an accent wall with the room’s main color.

“What’s going on with you?” Mr. Harris said. He took the roller out of Everett’s hand the way a cop would take a pistol away from a homeowner who’d just gunned down a robber in a ski mask. “Now you’re making extra work for me. You know I don’t play that.”

“Aw man. I’m sorry, Mr. Harris. I just… I got a lot on my mind right now.”

“Let me guess: Your mama spent up her share of the rent money on the latest party to end all parties?”

“No. Not this time. I got accepted to Coleridge.”

“Wow! That’s terrific. I knew your big, peasy head was destined for bigger and better things.”

“Well, we’ll see.”

“What the hell do you mean, ‘We’ll see’? You had better take your narrow black ass down there to Nashville and show them white folks just how wrong they’ve been for keeping the gate locked—and us outside—all this time.

 This ain’t just for you. The march on Washington last year, the sit-ins, the freedom rides… You integrating that school, that’s your sit-in, your freedom ride.”

“I get it, but—”

“Aw damn,” the older man said, cutting Everett off. “It’s about the money, ain’t it? Scholarships didn’t come through. Shit! What’s the point of inviting you to come if you can’t afford to go?”

“I got a full ride. I just have to pay for my books and feed myself. I can’t eat in the dining hall or stay in the dorms. But I saw a note in the package, saying they found a black family I can stay with not too far from campus.”

“So, why am I looking in your face and seeing somebody that’s got fruit ripe for the picking, but is too chickenshit to step into the orchard?”

Everett began to cry. “I’m not chickenshit. It’s just…”

“Just what, boy. Spill it.”

“My mama, man. She went off on me this morning when I told her I got into Coleridge.  There wasn’t any, ‘That’s wonderful, baby. I’m so proud of you.’ I said I needed to go so I can lift us up out of poverty and the poverty mindset you’ve been talking to me about. She ‘bout gave me a concussion, she slapped me so hard. Then she told me that if I leave, there’s no reason to ever come back.”

Mr. Harris shook his head. He continued touching up the spot on the accent wall that Everett had fouled up. “Look. She’s just scared, that’s all. Without you there, she’ll have to do a little bit more than nothing.”

“Exactly. She don’t wanna do nothin’, and she don’t want me to be nothin’ or have nothin’. If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t have nobody in my corner.”

Mr. Harris took a look at his watch, then made quick work of gathering his tools, picking up the canvas drop cloth protecting the pristine oak floor, and getting out the back door where he and his workers entered the house.

No one gave a second thought to the painting crew working in the lily-white Philadelphia suburb that was twenty-five minutes away from the North Philly row house where Everett, his mother, and his little sister resided. But the workers, Mr. Harris included, knew without having to be told that they were there on day passes and needed to be gone before dark.

“I’ll give you a ride home,” Mr. Harris said. “I need to talk some sense into Laverne, try to get her head screwed on right.”

“Please don’t. You’ll just make it worse for me. I’m either gonna catch a bus for Coleridge in August, or I’m not. But I’m not trying to catch any more hell than I have to between now and then.”

“Okay. Have it your way. I’ll keep my trap shut…as long as you promise to keep your eyes pointed in the direction of Nashville.”

“I promise. I just know better than to let her know where my head is at.”

Within 15 minutes, the lush lawns, picket fences, and fresh air had fully given way to cracked concrete, broken glass, and grime that coated everything—including the lungs—in a sad, dingy patina. It was a perfect match for spirits broken on the rack of futility by the northern branches of Jim Crow’s family tree: white flight; redlining; housing covenants; and Federal Housing Administration regulations crafted, as if by a sculptor, to ensure that blacks and the growing population of Latinos were walled off in ever-worsening slums.

Everett was quiet, lost in his thoughts again. The sights and sounds of North Philly were more depressing than usual. I gotta get out of here, he said to himself. Then he remembered his mother’s orders.

“You can drop me right here, Mr. Harris. I need to go to the check cashing place.”

“Okay. Here we are. Thank you for a good week of work, Everett.”

“Mr. Harris, why do you always thank me for doing my job? It’s not like you’re not paying me.”

“I’m thankful for anything anyone does for me, paid or not. You’ll learn that having an attitude of gratitude will take you places in life that talent alone won’t get you to.”

“That’s deep.”

“Not really. Now let me ask you a question: How many times am I going to have to tell you to get a bank account?”

Everett shrugged and looked off in the distance. Until he went to work for Mr. Harris, it had never occurred to Everett that banking was a basic adult activity. Not only did he not have a bank account, he hadn’t, as far as he knew, ever set foot inside a bank. But there was a good reason: You could’ve cast a net that stretched 10 blocks in each direction from the spot where Clay Harris had pulled his 1960 Ford F100 pickup to the curb and you wouldn’t have snared a single bank branch.

Mr. Harris knew that when the factories that had been the area’s economic engine closed, and ethnic whites fled like refugees to other parts of the city and the surrounding suburbs, North Philly’s darkened complexion made it unappealing to businesses like banks and grocery chains. He was also aware that when those businesses disappeared, more than the neighborhood’s fair share of liquor stores, fast food joints, pawn shops—and check-cashing places—sprang up to replace them.

“I know it’s out of the way,” he said to Everett. “But it’s more than worth it to go down there. I tell anybody: Not only can you stop giving your money away with all those fees the check cashers charge you, you also get the benefit of having your bread stashed somewhere more secure than inside a mattress or under a loose floorboard.” 

“I’ll get one on Monday after school. I promise.”

“Why does that sound familiar?”

“I know. I said it before. But I mean it this time.”

“Okay. See you on Monday.”

Everett waved as the green truck, with the company name and logo stenciled on the side, pulled away and disappeared into traffic.

The instant he turned around he heard, “Hey, youngblood. You got any change you can spare?”

“Nah, man. All my pennies are already spoken for.”

As Everett entered the dingy, dimly-lit check cashing place and took his place at the back of the line, a random thought overtook him:

That was the best-dressed beggar I’ve ever seen. Gold rings. Smooth threads. He must be moonlighting from his other job sticking up numbers spots.

Everett shook the thought off and settled in for the interminable wait to reach the window where he’d trade the blue slip of paper that read “Harris Painting & Landscaping” for a bunch of green-and-white ones with portraits of Lincoln and Washington.

His mind went back to the program already in progress: Who doesn’t want their kid to go to college? What’s with her sitting in the front window all day like she’s posing for a painting? What’s so important about that activity that she can’t get up off her ass and support herself? …And even if I don’t go to school, chances are good I won’t be here anyway. Before long, Uncle Sam’ll come swoop me up and plop me down in Vietnam so I can get my ass shot off.

A related train of thought jolted him like a thousand-volt current: What’s gonna happen to Taneesha once I make tracks? Who knows when mama’s boyfriend of the month will go from looking at her a little too long, to seeing with his hands instead of his eyes? Can she make it through her last two years of school? I hope she knows to keep her grades up so she can slingshot herself out the door right behind me. I’d never forgive myself if her life went down the drain and it was my leaving that pulled the stopper out.

Everett continued staring through the floor and agonizing over his life plans until the person behind him in line tapped him on the shoulder.

“Oh. Sorry,” he said as he stepped to the window.

Before he knew it, he was back out in the bright sunshine of the early April Saturday afternoon, awash in the hustle and bustle of people busy getting clothes washed, groceries bought, hair cut, and other errands run.

When Everett turned to head home, he felt an arm around his shoulder. It was the fashionable bum who had politely asked for change minutes earlier. But this time, he wasn’t quite so polite.

The arm around Everett’s shoulder quickly closed around his neck. And so did terror. The chokehold kept him from crying out for help as the incredibly strong man forced him into the open side door of a white delivery van waiting at the curb.

He gave no thought to his abductors taking his life. Instead, the first thing that entered his mind was, Damn. The rent. My mama’s gon’ kill me.

When the door slid shut behind him and the van eased into traffic, the dapper robber put an icepick up against the side of his neck, and read him his rights: “You have the right to shut the fuck up. If you give up that right, I’m gon’ make you start gushing like a fire hydrant. You got that?”

Everett nodded in wide-eyed horror.

As he rode in the darkness on the van’s bare metal floor, the length of the trip let him know that he was no longer in North Philly.

They’re not bringing me all this way just to rob me. They mean to kill me and dump me where nobody will find me, he thought. I guess my mama was right: I’m not going to Coleridge, or anywhere else.

When the van pulled to a stop on a lightly trafficked path on the edge of the Woodlands Cemetery on the other side of the Schuylkill River, the driver yelled, “Hurry up, man. I ain’t got all day. Pluck this turkey clean and let’s go.”

The fashionable robber laughed with a loud cackle, like it was Redd Foxx shouting instructions from the driver’s seat. “You heard the man. Give it up.”

Everett tried to bargain. “C’mon, mister. My rent is due today. You really wanna have me and my family out in the street? What if I gave you two dollars and we forgot the whole thing.”

The well-dressed robber laughed again. “Just like you said: All your pennies are spoken for. They mine now.” He angled the icepick so its point dug into the skin under Everett’s chin. “Don’t make me leave you looking like Swiss cheese.”

Everett dug into the right pocket of his coveralls and pulled out the white envelope containing the $12 he had planned to turn over to his mother when he got home. That’s when the fashionista went into a blind rage, beating the boy with a fury no less intense than the way God’s angels smote Sodom and Gomorrah.

After wailing away at Everett’s face and torso for a solid minute, the robber-slash-kidnapper slapped him and said, “Don’t play with me, motherfucker. Where’s the rest?”

“That’s it. That’s my rent money,” Everett mumbled through lips that were starting to look like sausages with too much meat pumped into the casings.

“Have it your way, lil’ nigger.”

The robber went back to work, ignoring the crimson streams he’d already caused to come forth from the boy. But the three-piece combo he served up—one to the ribs, one to the chest, and one to the jaw—left Everett knocked out cold.

“See? That’s what you get,” the violent mugger said to his lifeless victim. The fashion plate stuck his meaty hands in each of Everett’s pockets and pulled them out so they looked like rabbit ears. The $3.75 that Everett had separated from the rest of his earnings after he stepped away from the cashier’s window fell to the floor of the van.

Unbeknownst to his mother, Everett had been holding back some of his paycheck, stashing the extra money in his room ever since the previous spring. That was when Mr. Harris gave him a raise to $1.50 an hour, up from the one-dollar-an-hour minimum wage.

He started putting the money away as a hedge against one of the horses on his mother’s boyfriend carousel walking away with the rent money—again. “Who knows when she’ll suffer another ‘fainting spell’ and ‘fall and hit her eye’ right around the time some money comes up missing?” he told himself.

The most recent time it happened, Everett pretended that divine intervention had kept the sheriff from putting their furniture and everything else they owned on the street. He borrowed the $25 his mother was obligated to pay—but he actually worked to earn—from Mr. Harris, with the promise to pay his boss back two dollars a week. But he was determined never to have to “go crawling on my knees” again.

That day, when Everett reappeared after work to find that the knuckle dragger who had pried the money loose from his mother was still in the wind—and that his mother’s “ace boon coons” had yet to cobble together a single dollar to help out—he handed the borrowed money directly to the landlord. He told his mother he’d found it on the bus.

Now, his portion of the rent money was gone, and the cash earmarked for his rainy-day fund right along with it.

Only after the fashionista had picked up the three neatly folded dollar bills and the three quarters and slid them in the pocket of his blue windbreaker did he peer out of one of the van’s rear windows to make sure they were still alone. Seeing that no one was around, the robber opened the side door and rolled the still unconscious Everett onto the ground.

Everett woke up in bed.

“I must’ve dreamed up the whole thing,” he told himself.

But it wasn’t a dream. He soon saw, through the slowly dissipating haze created by the drugs in his system, that the bed was a gurney in the emergency room at Mercy Douglass Hospital. It was the medical facility at which all black Philadelphians were treated because the city’s other hospitals were whites-only zones.

The anesthesia that was wearing off had been administered in preparation for the extensive remodeling job his face had required.

His broken nose was readjusted; several dozen stitches were needed to close gashes over both eyes, under the corner of his mouth, and on his left cheek; and a series of staples formed a short railway running east to west across his hairline.

How did I end up here? he asked himself as his senses continued waking up to the frenzied pace of activity that was the ER’s baseline state early on a Saturday evening. 

His gurney had been pushed out into the corridor adjacent to the nurses’ station. He had no idea that it was to make room for the same trio of good Samaritan heroin addicts who, a few hours earlier, conducted a more thorough search of the kid than the robber did. They’d found two bucks in the back pocket of the cutoff jeans he was wearing under his uniform.

When they saw him, beaten to a pulp and tossed like a ragdoll on the ground at the edge of the cemetery, they knew he needed help. But help wasn’t coming to that lightly-trafficked area, so they decided to take him to where help was. But not before they checked to make sure that he wasn’t burdened down with anything that would make him too hard to carry. It was amazing how removing those two dollars seemed to lighten the load.

They delivered him to Mercy Douglass inside the wheelbarrow they normally used to cart around the metal pipes they collected and sold for scrap.

After their impromptu medical transport mission, they scored enough smack to “make the pain go away,” at least for the night. But they never got to enjoy their batch of “Preparation H.” The member of the group who was responsible for pouring the over-proof rum (which had been their Plan A until they extracted their ambulette fee from Everett) dropped the bottle a little too close to where his cohorts were cooking the black tar.

The blinding flash got them in touch with their religious side. The frenetic dance they did in response to the flames that jumped on them was not unlike the sanctified choreography of holy rollers enraptured by the Spirit. But instead of fire being shut up in their bones, it was engulfing their clothes, sending them back to the hospital with second- and third-degree burns.

Amid the manic processing of bodies that had been burned, shot, stabbed, poisoned, or otherwise violated, Everett managed to grab the attention of one of the nurses. His still-swollen eyes prevented him from registering anything but the fact that she was wearing a white uniform and had a stethoscope around her neck. But she recognized him instantly.

“Omigod! Everett? Who did this to you?”

His ears did what his eyes couldn’t. He immediately recognized the voice. The nurse was Katrina Harris, his boss’ wife.

“Hi, Mrs. Harris. It’s not that bad, is it?” he said as he moved his hand toward his battered face.

“Worse,” she said. She gently grabbed his wrist to stop him from touching the doctor’s handiwork. “Listen. I want you to try to relax, Everett. You’re safe now. I’m going to call Clayton and see if he’ll come and take you home.”

“You don’t have to do that. I can make it.”

“Nonsense,” she said, slowly surveying the extent of the damage. “You stay right there until he arrives, okay?”

“Okay.”

During the 20 minutes it took for Mr. Harris to drive northeast from the inner-ring suburb of Darby to the hospital, Everett’s thoughts ping-ponged back and forth between the savage beating he’d taken in the back of the van and guessing what had befallen each trauma victim who was wheeled by him. He didn’t know to thank God that his abductors, by taking him to the cemetery, unwittingly put him within wheelbarrow distance of the hospital.

Just when he was about to drift off to sleep, a massive hand gently shook him. It was Mr. Harris.

“Damn…” Mr. Harris said as he surveyed the extent of the damage to Everett’s face. “I’d hate to see the other guy. Katrina says you’re gonna be okay—even if you don’t look like it. C’mon, let’s get out of here.”

Everett swung his legs over the edge of the gurney, steadied himself, and zipped up his blood-splattered coveralls. As the two of them passed the nurses’ station on their way toward the exit, Everett’s boss stopped at the counter.

“Excuse me, Nurse Harris,” he said. “I just wanted to thank you for taking such good care of Humpty Dumpty here. I’ll express my full appreciation later.”

She smiled, gave him a peck on the lips, and handed him a small paper bag she’d filled with aspirin, bandages, gauze, and a bunch of alcohol wipes. “I wish I could do more… Poor thing.”

During the ride from 50th and Woodland in Philadelphia’s Southwest section—a long, winding route that passed the unwelcoming doors of the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center and Temple University Hospital—Mr. Harris listened as the boy recounted the incident as best he could, right down to the navy blue slacks, electric blue shirt, gold chain, and gold nugget ring the beggar-turned-robber was wearing.

A ring. So that’s what caused so much damage, Mr. Harris said to himself.

Everett also reassured his boss that he didn’t need any money, despite the afternoon’s events.

“It’s my fault, Mr. Harris. If I had listened to you… you know, about opening up a bank account…”

“Don’t beat yourself up about it. The other guy already did a pretty good job working you over. What I wanna know is, now that you had to learn the hard way, how you’ll apply the lesson.”

“One thing is for sure: I’m going down to the bank straight away when school lets out Monday afternoon.”

“That’s good. But what else did this experience teach you?”

“That I should be taking judo.”

They both laughed.

“You got a lot of fight in you. A whole lot of grit. But I don’t think a black belt in karate is the answer for you. I want to see you combine that fight with that big brain of yours and use them to fight your way up out of here. You weren’t meant for these streets.”

When Mr. Harris pulled his BMW up to the curb across the street from Everett’s house, the boy’s heart began to race. It was beating so hard that he could feel the blood coursing through his injured lips. Panic had set in to the point that it was all he could do to keep from begging Mr. Harris to slam down the gas pedal and leave a trail of burnt rubber as they sped off.

“What’s wrong, son?” Mr. Harris asked.

Everett sat stone still, with his head facing forward. The one eye that had begun to reopen kept darting to the side, as if he were trying to capture the scene across the street without the object of his gaze knowing he was looking. Each time the bloodshot eye flashed in that direction, he was also hoping that the next time his eyes fell on the group, he would realize that what he thought he saw was a mirage.

“Come on, boy. Your mama ain’t that bad. Her bark is worse than her bite. And I should know. One time, back in high school, she actually bit me.”

A tear fell from the corner of Everett’s eye.

“It’s him,” the boy said.

Mr. Harris furrowed his bushy eyebrows and focused his attention on the group. Only then did he notice the man decked out in the navy blue slacks, fancy electric blue shirt, gold chain, and a smile like the cat that ate the canary.

He took a deep breath, reached across Everett, and opened the glove compartment. He pulled out a black .38-caliber revolver and the worn leather holster that cradled it.

Who knows what this cat might get a mind to do, Harris thought.

“Let’s go, Everett. Let’s get you some clothes. You’ll stay with me tonight.

When the two of them reached the steps where the armed robber was standing, neither he nor Everett’s mother paused for a second on account of the boy’s disheveled face.

Mr. Harris, who towered over the group, stepped up to the robber. “Excuse me, I believe you have something that belongs to this young man.”

The robber tucked his thumbs behind his wide leather belt, then let out a laugh that seemed to come from the soles of his spit-shined wingtips. “I don’t know him, and I don’t know you. So unless you lookin’ to get chopped down to size, I suggest you take your Mighty Joe Young–lookin’ ass back to your toy car and get away from around here.”

“I’ll ask you again. You’ve got something that belongs to this boy, and you need to hand it over right now. And trust me when I tell you: this ain’t about to go down the way it went down with him earlier today.”

“Have it your way, partner,” the robber said with a smile as he pulled out his icepick. “I’m standing here trying to enjoy the evening breeze, you know, being nice and neighborly. I’m tryin’ to be the good nigga, but you want that other nigga. So I’ma go ‘head and give you what you want.”

The two women and the man who were standing next to the smooth criminal beneath the window where Everett’s mother was presiding over the sidewalk cipher stepped back. So did Mr. Harris.

“Come on, y’all,” said the bug-eyed man who moved to the top step. “Give Sonny room to work.”

Everett’s mother sat wide-eyed. She would finally witness Clay Harris, the former all-state football and all-city basketball star, get his comeuppance for dumping her and running off to college 17 years earlier instead of marrying her and helping her raise the baby that was already growing in her womb.

In her mind, it didn’t matter that she had given up her virginity to a fast-talking high school dropout and inept low-level drug dealer who couldn’t even get her name right. (“It’s Laverne, not Lorraine,” she told him twice on the same February night that he got her drunk then got her pregnant.) It didn’t matter to her that Clay, her supposed boyfriend, was in Harrisburg playing in a basketball tournament when she conceived. He should have stayed, supported her, and taken care of her, she thought. Or at least taken her with him when he went off to Grambling State University that fall.

Everett’s assailant, irritated by the bigger man’s demands and bristling at his aura of authority, stepped forward to close the distance between them. “I see I’ma have to put holes in you like I shoulda done your punk-ass boy. You big, but you bleed just the same as these other niggas out here.”

“Wrong answer,” Mr. Harris said.

When the well-dressed mugger lunged forward and attempted to stick him, Mr. Harris took a long step backward, put his hand in the small of his back, pulled the pistol, and pointed it directly between the other man’s eyes.

The robber’s bravado, which had just been on full display, suddenly booked a flight to parts unknown.

“Hey, uhhh… Look here, brother man…” he said as he put both hands up in surrender and let the icepick drop to his feet.

The warble in his voice gave away the fact that, although he was a criminal, he wasn’t by any means hardened. “This ain’t even my scene, ya dig? I was paid to do a job and I did it.”

“Wait. What job?” Mr. Harris demanded. “What sick person paid you to do this to this boy?”

“Look, you need to talk to her,” the neutered tough guy said as the beads of sweat that had begun to form on his forehead and above his top lip glistened in the light from the street lamp directly overhead. Pointing at Everett’s mother, he said, “She told me to take his money and rough him up a little bit. Said it’d be good for him, toughen him up.”

Every eye—except for Everett’s right one, which was still swollen shut—was locked on her.

“Shut yo ass up, Sonny!” Everett’s mother hollered from her perch in the window. “Ain’t nobody tell you to mess his face up like that.”

Turning her focus to her former boyfriend, she said, “I just wanted to get the boy’s head out of the clouds with all the bullshit dreams you keep sellin’ him about how college is gon’ change his life. Shit, he gon’ need to face facts: People like us don’t make it out. Whether it’s a baby or a blown knee, it’s always something waiting, ready to jump on you and drag you back.”

 “So let me get this straight,” Mr. Harris said. “That’s the stupid-ass reason you set your own son up to get kidnapped, beaten half to death, and then robbed? I knew you were conniving. I knew you were selfish. I knew you were as dumb as they come. But I didn’t know you had this much evil in you.”

“It don’t matter what you think, Clay Harris. That’s my son. I’m the one who had to raise him by myself, and I’m the one who’s trying to make a man out of him.”

Everett couldn’t believe his ears. Though none of the people there could see or smell it, a thick plume of smoke was rising from the charred remains of his relationship with his mother. He was gutted. Speechless. All he could do was search her face for some sign that he was worth more to her than the additional government allotment that came along with his presence in the household. He called off the search on account of darkness—not on the sidewalk, but in her soul.

 “I don’t care what you call yourself trying to do,” Mr. Harris said. “This is what you’re going to do. You’re going to sign the paperwork Everett needs for school so he can decide for himself what direction his life is going to take. You’re going to take the revolving door off your bedroom and stop putting your children in danger with all these random negroes you got traipsing in and out of here. You’re going to get up off your lazy ass and cook Everett and Taneesha some hot meals instead of leaving them to fend for themselves on the days when your mooching-ass girlfriends aren’t coming over looking for a plate.

But right now, you’re going to open up that door and give Everett back every nickel that this waste of skin beat out of him earlier today. And from now on, you’re going to be the breadwinner in this house, not him. I don’t care how you do it. If you can earn some money sitting right where you are, be my guest. But I’m thinking you’re going to have to drag your ass out of that window to make it happen. Whichever way it goes, his money is his. And he’s saving it for college, not for you.

Now, I know you’re not the sharpest knife in the drawer. But you damn sure better remember what I’m telling you. ‘Cause if you forget, here’s what I’m gon’ do. I’m going to send somebody to refresh your memory. That’s right. And he’ll be wearing a uniform and a badge and carrying a gun bigger than this one right here. And everybody around here is going to know that you’re the reason why the cops have this block under a magnifying glass.

Now, Everett’s going in to get his money and some clothes, so for the next five or 10 minutes, you better act like you got some sense about you.”

Focusing on the criminal-for-hire, Mr. Harris said, “And as for you… Sonny, is it? The next time I see you or I hear that Everett has seen you will be the last time anybody sees you. Now, disappear before I’m the one who says abracadabra. Uh-uh. Leave the icepick. You don’t need it. You’re a tough guy, right?”

As Sonny and his bug-eyed friend shuffled up the block to the white van, getting smaller with each stride, Everett made a beeline for his bedroom. He wasn’t prepared for what he saw when he opened the door.

His mattress and box spring had been tossed onto the floor. Each of his dresser drawers had been yanked out and their contents flung on top of the box spring. There wasn’t a single book on the shelves of his three-tier bookcase. All of the furniture had been wrenched from their places on the walls. The loose floorboard under which he kept his change jar had been torn up; the jar was missing.

Three hours earlier, the instant Sonny called Laverne from a pay phone and she learned about the extra $3.75 that her hired gun had taken off of Everett’s person, she was sure that there was more where that came from. She spent the next hour ransacking the room. Even while he was in the hospital having his face put back together, Everett was being cussed out in absentia.

“Motherfucker gon’ hold out on me? Who the fuck does he think he is? Worthless piece of shit. I got something for your black ass, Everett Jonathan Forrest. I’m taking it all. You so smart? Figure out what you gon’ do without your United Negro College Fund.”

But she never found his cache of paper money. When Sonny stopped by to drop off the $12 as they had agreed, she asked him to stay a while, thinking his presence would get Everett to divulge the location of the stash when he finally made his way home.

She didn’t count on Mr. Harris chauffeuring him. And she never would have predicted that Everett’s driver would come armed.

Her window of opportunity to grab the cash shut completely when Everett noticed that the faux brass lamp on his desk was still sitting upright. He put the shade on the floor, turned the lamp on its side, and removed the felt cap on its bottom that was designed to keep the light fixture from marring a wooden or glass surface. He pulled out two white envelopes. One bulged with one- and five-dollar bills. The other one was the white and blue Coleridge University envelope that he’d fished from the mailbox after breakfast.

He put the lamp back together, stuffed the envelopes and some clothes in a duffel bag, then strolled into the living room.

“Here’s your money,” his mother said. “Now get out of my house.”

“Keep it. You worked so hard for it. Besides, I have this.”

He held up the envelope teeming with cash. “I know you looked high and low for it, but you didn’t look high enough. Or was it low enough? Either way, you wanted to know what kind of nigga I am? Apparently, I’m the kind who knows how to find a good hiding place.”

“You talkin’ a whole bunch of shit right now,” she hissed. “But your bodyguard won’t be here when you come back tomorrow.”

“Good night, mother,” he said without turning around or breaking stride.

He might as well have said goodbye. What was supposed to be just a one-night stay became semi-permanent the instant Mrs. Harris heard the full story and insisted that Everett stay out in Darby—and out of harm’s way—until he left for school in August. He never set foot in the row house again.