Sunday, December 21, 2008
Still panting from the five block sprint, Teddy pulled the ski-mask off and immediately emptied the bag onto the table. He began stacking the bills neatly, a pile for each denomination. As his mother entered the room she recognized the gleam in his eye and could not ignore the recklessness with which he spoke.
“Now that’s a haul—almost six hundred and fifty bucks! Did you see the way the shopkeeper’s hands were shakin’? He couldn’t get that register open fast enough!”
More than an hour had passed since she and Teddy had reached the safety of the apartment, but even now Mimi Jones preferred the secrecy of disguise. She searched her heart for words that might turn a sixteen year old boy’s perception, but those she found were distinctly a mother’s.
“Listen to you talk—like a regular thug. This ain’t no haul—it’s next month’s rent, a new pair of shoes for you, and a warm coat for your sister.”
The boy grimaced as she moved closer and took his face in her hands. She spoke slowly, as if delaying important words might allow them to linger long enough to be absorbed.
“Theodore Jamal Jones, this ain’t who we are!”
Even the sincerity in her words couldn’t change the fact it was who they had become. She never imagined times this difficult—this desperate; when cash from pawned family heirlooms would not be enough. Not a day passed when she didn’t dwell on the catalyst that spawned this downward spiral. In her view, her husband had become a poor influence on the children and eventually she asked him to leave. Quite possibly his reluctance to go had not been selfish in nature, but only that he saw a clearer vision regarding the hardships that lie before them.
Worry saddled with hypocrisy made for a heavy burden. A dark shadow had swallowed her soul and Mimi struggled to break the invisible grip. Where was the change that politicians peddled so freely? Change, they touted, had the power to transform, an opportunity that knocked upon doors. Perhaps she was busy surviving when promise came rapping, but it had left no card, not even a sign it had made an attempt. Maybe this illusive ideal was colorblind as so many things seemed to be; avoiding dark neighborhoods such as theirs.
Even the young boys next door, those she had mothered years ago, had soured in this environment. She cried while watching future businessmen, doctors, and lawyers as they played the roles of thugs, dealers, and thieves. Choosing to cast aside each ideal and moral as their eyes became colder, their faces harder, and the possibility of turning back became slimmer. This loathsome beast bearing the name of poverty had a veracious appetite and where she lived, there were many much too willing to oblige. Mimi refused to facilitate the slow decay of her own children. No longer would she merely fatten them for the kill.
“That’s it, Teddy—no more of this! I’ve slid far enough down this slope, it’s time I dig in my heels and start crawling upward.”
“But Momma, the doctor says you’ll die without the heart medicine. Just one more time—I’ll go alone.”
“Teddy, can’t you see? Part of me died tonight as I watched how readily you took to crime and I don’t need no doctor to tell me that. Promise me, son, no matter what, there’ll be no more.”
Teddy turned away as he felt his eyes burning. Bitter tears carved his cheeks and emotions welled inside.
“I’m the man of the house now and there ain’t nothin’ a man should back down from when it comes to protecting his family. Please, Momma, ask me anything else but I can’t make you that promise.”
So the conversation ended in a stalemate. Mimi knew she could not refute his words as they were her own spewed back at her. Within some circumstances there existed no line between black and white, fine or otherwise, only a void filled with gray.
As the days passed her weakened heart confined her to more days in a worn chair that she would have liked, but Mimi found comfort there. With a ragged throw knitted by her mother around her shoulders, she dozed a good part of the day and welcomed the dreams that infiltrated her rest. She embraced a foreign world so overfilled with joy and love there were no cracks for such demons as worry to slither in. For these small things young Teddy was thankful.
He tucked his sister into bed, covering her with an extra blanket. He also checked to see that his mother was resting peacefully before leaving them that Christmas Eve night. He glanced to an empty corner where a Christmas tree stood in years past and then moved to the thermostat again. The apartment had grown chilly since the heat had been turned off. Teddy pressed an open hand against the thin pane of glass separating his world from theirs. Although the divider appeared translucent it may as well been made of stone, with a large no trespassing sign hanging from it. Many believed the time had come when an affluent white society welcomed the poor black man, but he knew they were liars. Even the aid they provided came at a heavy price. As long as a man was willing to check his dignity and pride at the door they would allow him to beg for a check. How charitable of them; monthly installments to ensure their neighborhoods, churches, and clubs remained snow-white and void of impurities. He would not stand by while they killed his mother. As a naïve and cruel world slept Teddy prepared to provide for his family in the only way he knew.
As easily as he had tucked his young sister in bed, he placed the .45 into his waistband. The cold steel against the small of his back signaled the finality that accompanied such weapons. He didn’t intend upon firing, but his intentions would remain secret as he brandished the weapon boldly.
At some moment during her son’s absence Mimi’s heart simply failed to beat and she exhaled one last breath. Her body was not racked with pain, she quietly slipped away. This eternal state of sleep spared her soul the tortuous details of Teddy’s last battle.
The second time the shop owner’s hand shook with rage instead of fear as he refused to open the register. Teddy leapt over the counter and clubbed the man with the butt of his pistol. In a fit of rage he shook the box open and emptied the contents. As the proprietor began to stir Teddy hurdled the counter and found the door, but as he reached the curb an unexpected hail of gunfire shattered the still night air. He felt the scorching rounds ripping through his flesh seconds before he heard the sound. Teddy stumbled, but the screeching voice of the store owner stoked his adrenaline and carried him as far as the next street light, but at 42nd and Broadway his weakened legs could carry him no further and he fell to the sidewalk.
Teddy had no idea his mother had passed, just as she was unaware he lay on the street dying. A light snow started to trickle from the sky and with a strange urgency he wiped at the flakes that settled on his shivering body. He wanted to ensure that whoever discovered him would see the skin color God had given him. As consciousness began to fade and his breathing became labored he could hear the voice of carolers in the distance. They were joyfully singing ‘White Christmas’. Teddy knew his mother would have been disappointed in his pettiness, but he could not allow those words to haunt him forever. Through a concerted effort he burned his last bit of energy to smile and brush at the snow again. His chest rose and fell one last time as a baritone voice began Silent Night.