I can remember...
Grandma had been in the bed for the past two days. She took her funeral clothes off, put on her night gown and sat on the bed and started crying. Then she lay down and had not been up since. Humphrey was on autopilot and was literally taking care of himself. He could hear her from the bedroom telling him to wash his face and brush his teeth before school or to make himself a sandwich when he got home from school, or to watch television and do his homework; those sorts of parental commands, but he had not really seen her face. His parents being dead and gone had not registered with him; all he knew is that he had not seen them up and around since he saw them laying there in their caskets. He understood what dead was but he had not adjusted to the reality of time and the fact they were not coming back home. He expected to see them soon and was simply waiting for either of them to walk through the door to pick him up and take him home. He would tell them something was wrong with Grandma; she was not feeling well and he was sure they would handle it. This day Humphrey got home from school and just knew his mother or father would be there because they always came to get him on Friday. The screen door squeaked and slammed close as he came in and immediately looked at the queen-ann armchair to see if his mother was sitting there like she sometimes does when he gets home. But she was not. He tossed his lunch box on the coffee table and threw his jacket on the couch. The kitchen was in his path as he hurried threw the hallway toward the refrigerator. He stopped and listened when he heard a man's voice coming from Grandma's room, but it was the television. This was new; she had the television on today; she must be getting better, he thought. He poured himself a cup of cool aid and drank it down in a hurry to go into her room and see her. He slammed the cup on the counter and ran into her room. She was sitting on the bed folding clothes; his mother's clothes. Humphrey's eyes widened in anticipation that maybe she was coming to get her clothes later.
"Hey Grandma." He said and swung on the door, back and forth. She fussed about it of course. "Is mama coming to get me?" he said and stood looking at her, hoping she said yes so he could run to get his A paper he got today in school to show her. Grandma stopped folding clothes and her eyes watered. She dropped her head in her hand. Humphrey looked with slight shock; sorry he said whatever he said to upset her. He put his hands in his pockets. "Is she?" he said and his face straightened. Grandma looked up at him and her face got angry. She had that look she gets when she was tired of telling him something over and over. Humphrey's face filled with fear.
"What did I tell you boy. Your mother is not coming to get you anymore, she's dead Humphrey. She cannot go anywhere anymore. She's dead baby." She said and her voice raised and shook with hurt and she started sobbing. Humphrey's face saddened and he stood there, looking at her cry. He wondered why Grandma would lie to him like that. His feelings were hurt. Then it dawned on him that maybe he would not see his mother again, or his father, because he was laying next to his mother in a casket too. He stared at Grandma and his eyes watered. But he did not want to cry like Grandma was crying so he pulled the tears back and took a deep breath and stopped his heart from hurting. He raised his head and his lips tightened. He looked at Grandma and got mad at her. Then he thought to himself that if his mother was not coming back then he might as well be mad at her also, so he took his hands out of his pockets and balled up his fist. And if anyone ever said anything else to him about his mother dying or his father dying, or about his Grandma, he would get mad and...and...he was too angry at that moment to think of anything but he knew it would make him mad enough to hurt someone.
"You a lie Grandma!" he shouted and ran out the room. She yelled back at him to come back but he stomped into the living room and stopped and looked around. There was no sense in waiting for his mother so he walked over to the queen-ann armchair and pushed it over. It slammed against the floor and he ran out the front door. He stopped on the porch and looked around for anyone who might have told him something different about his mother. He saw Mrs. Wilson on her porch across the street and he started down the stairs and in her direction. She saw him coming and then his Grandma came to the door and yelled for him to come back in the house. Humphrey stormed across the street to Mrs. Wilson's porch, stomped up the stairs and stopped. "Did my mama come over her Mrs. Wilson?" he asked with a serious, demanding face. She looked at him and tilted her head in pity. She knew his parents were dead but she did not have the heart to say anything. She looked over at his Grandma, who was coming down the stairs and started her way over.
"Humphrey!" she shouted as she strutted across the street. "You get your little ass over here now!" she fussed. Humphrey ignored her and looked, anxiously at Mrs. Wilson and his eyes started to water again. He sucked the tears back and stood, firm. Then he felt Grandma's hand on his arm as she yanked him around. She stooped down and took hold of both his arms and shook him. "Get your butt back over across the street boy!" she said.
"Let that boy go like that Henny." Mrs. Wilson said, fussing. "You ought not talk to him like that knowing his parents is with the Lord. Let him go." She slowly stood up from her chair and pulled Humphrey away from his Grandma, tucking him against her. She stood there looking at his Grandma, Henrietta "Henny" Mays, who was staring back with sad eyes, puffing her breath. She was a thin woman; about forty-five years old and wore the cat-rimmed glasses and a beehive hairdo. Mrs. Wilson understood that Henny was upset too that her daughter had been killed and she needed to heal just like Humphrey, but she could not stand by and watch her mistreat him. Mrs. Wilson was older than Humphrey's Grandma. She had been living in Perry Projects for years and remembered when Henny moved into the projects with her daughter, Lucy, when Lucy was a little girl. "You need to be gentle with this boy, stop yelling at him. He sufferin' too just like you are. You hear me?" she said waving her finger in Henny's face. Henny stood there receiving what she was saying but she was hurting. She did not know what she was going to do with this little boy and how she was going to raise him by herself. She needed advice; any advice that would help. She started crying right there on Mrs. Wilson's porch. "Oh Lord." Mrs. Wilson said and bent down to Humphrey and turned him to her, face to face. "You look here little boy. You go home and eat something. I want to talk to your Grandma ok?" she said and reached into her house coat pocket. He looked down at a stick of gum she pulled out and handed to him. He took it and un-wrapped it. Then he turned around and looked at Grandma, who was quietly sobbing into her hands. Humphrey slowly stepped down off the porch and walked toward the house. He stopped and turned around to look at his Grandma again. "Go on boy. Go ahead and go home. She'll be there after awhile." Mrs. Wilson said and waved him off. Humphrey turned and walked across the street sticking the gum into his mouth.
Humphrey would sit on the couch and watch television; do his homework or draw pictures. Every now and then he would look over at the queen-ann armchair and imagine his mother sitting there talking to him. He would answer her under his breath and go back to what he was doing. Grandma was not lying, his mother did not come home again, nor did his father. He finally decided to think about other things whenever he would anticipate them coming home because obviously they were not coming. Over time, he just forgot to think about them anymore. At six-years old, his heart was able to empty the pain and rebuild into affection for his Grandma. Although there were still vague yet meaningful memories of his mother and father in his mind. Like the image of her in the arm chair, the one of her smiling at him in the grocery store one day; the memory of her and his father sitting in the front seat of the car talking about him while he was in the back; the memory of the big club with the lights and the music. There were others but there will always be the vivid ones. As the days moved past him and the nights became easier for him to sleep, Humphrey was able to return to normal childhood and to get over his anger at his Grandma. But there remained certain anger in his heart about his parents that he could not explain or control. On the advice of Mrs. Wilson, Grandma took him to his old school until the end of the school year, and then she would enroll him in the new school in the neighborhood for next year. His friends were at his old school and back at his other house. He did not know any of the kids at Grandma's in the projects but he finally put two and two together once school was out and he realized that he was not going back home to see his old friends. When the summer vacation rolled in and the sun stayed out longer, he could hear the voices of other kids playing outside. From time to time he would veer over to the screen door and look out at the kids playing and riding their bikes or playing baseball in the street.
The projects were massive in Humphrey's six-year old eyes. From the front porch, the three units across the street blocked the sunlight as it rose in the morning. They were three stories high each and with small, evenly-spaced windows spreading across the top, middle and bottom. There was an open breezeway in the center of each building that led into the dark hallways, which further led to each two-bedroom unit. The buildings were a husky dark brown with black trim around the windows and doors and most of them had little to no grass in the front yards. A sidewalk wound around the front and along the long street all the way to the corner, where another long row of projects started on the next block. The next block was a world within itself in Humphrey's eyes; far away and never to be explored. Thin figures of people could be seen from his porch as he looked as far as he could down the street into the next block, and the next block. Large trees shaded the streets and the cars parked along the curb; kids darted in and out of the breezeways, from around buildings and behind trees. Voices echoed and bounced off the buildings and dog barks resounded and echoed too. At night, one street light lit Humphrey's block from one end to the other with porch lights filling the blanks. He could barely see the figures of older people as they stood around parked cars and blew smoke from their mouths; talking loud and laughing. Grandma would close the door once it got dark and lock them inside. She would say that 'there was no good thing in the night.' Police sirens whaled in the distance outside, and sometimes right past their unit. One night there was a fire truck outside and Humphrey, and some of the other kids on the block, got to come outside and watch them put out a fire at a corner unit. It was Mrs. Bridges unit and come to find out she left some rice cooking on the stove. The unit was burnt inside out and afterward boarded up. On the weekends, the other kids started creeping down and looking through the ashes only to be yelled at by the adults next door or across the street. Humphrey watched, and he wanted so badly to play outside also.
His father had bought him his first bike last year but he had not had a chance to ride it; it still had the training wheels on it. But when he saw the other kids riding without training wheels, he wanted to give it a try. He asked Grandma if he could go outside and ride his bike. Grandma was reluctant to let him go outside at first and kept telling him no. So Humphrey would sit on the front porch and watch the kids while Grandma would come back and forth to the door to check on him. Humphrey started to recognize the same kids who played on his block and when they noticed him watching, they started walking pass his project unit, talking among each other and indirectly at him. One day a group of kids were walking pass his porch and one little boy stopped and asked Humphrey if he could come off his porch. Humphrey shook his head no and a few of the kids laughed at him and kept going. He went in the house and asked Grandma again if he could go and ride his bike. She figured he would have to go outside at some point so she went out on the front porch with him and looked around at the kids with her hands on her hips. She turned and looked down at Humphrey and bent to talk to him, pointing into his face. "You stay away from anybody who wants to get you in trouble you understand?" she said and Humphrey nodded his head. "And don't you leave the block. If I look out here and I don't see you, I'm gonna come and find you and whip your butt, you hear me?" she said and reared back up. Humphrey grinned a bit and his eyes widened as he looked to the streets and at the other kids.
"Ok Grandma." He said and anxiously twisted his hands together. She closed her eyes and did a soft prayer and told him to go ahead and be careful. "Thanks Grandma." He said and walked slowly down the stairs. The kids were across the street on someone else's porch. There were about seven kids all together and they were all huddled around on the ground looking at something. Humphrey walked to the curb and stopped, still twisting his hands together. "Hey!" he shouted to the other kids. A few of them turned around and looked. One little boy came off the porch and headed his way, followed by another little boy. The boy, Willie, approached Humphrey and stopped then reached in his pocket and pulled out a plastic army action figure. Willie was a little taller than Humphrey and darker too. He had a short, nappy uneven afro with lent in it. He had thick, dark lips with crust on the edges and thick eyebrows.
"You got one of these?" he asked and stuck the action figure out toward Humphrey. Humphrey looked at it and shook his head no, with a slight grin. Willie grinned and turned to the other little boy behind him. "Ay Butchy, he don't have a GI Joe." The other boy, Butchy, grinned at Humphrey but did not say anything. "What's your name?" Willie asked.
"Humphrey." He said. Willie laughed.
"Humphrey? What kind of name is that?" he said and Butchy laughed too. "Like Humpty Dumpty." Willie said and laughed again. Humphrey frowned.
"Don't call me that." He said and looked at Butchy, giving him a look to make him stop laughing. Butchy stopped and his face went serious. Butchy was smaller than Willie; about the same height and size as Humphrey. He was thin and had a mean face, Humphrey thought, but he grinned a lot giving him an innocent demeanor. Humphrey looked back at Willie. Both boys were dirty; like they had been rolling around in the dirt. They had holes in their shirts, rips in their pants knees and band-aids on their elbows and/or knees. Humphrey's, however, clothes were clean and pressed nice. "What's your name?" Humphrey asked.
"I'm Willie Bomont." Willie said proudly, pointing to himself. Humphrey laughed.
"Bomont? What kind of name is that?" he repeated and laughed some more. Willie's face tightened.
"My name Willie. Call me Willie." He said and pointed to Butchy. "This Butchy." He said, looking at Humphrey.
"Hey Humphrey." Butchy said. Humphrey turned to Willie.
"Hey Willie Boe." He said and grinned wide. Willie looked and squint his eyes at Humphrey.
"I said Willie. Not Willie Boe." He said and stuck his action figure in his pocket. His attention turned down the street at a yell from some other kids and he nudged Butchy. "Come on, let's go." He said and they ran off. Humphrey watched them run. Butchy turned around and told Humphrey to 'come on, let's go.' Humphrey grinned and took off running after them.
By the end of the summer, Humphrey's clothes were as dirty and torn as the other kids, and he had a few band-aids on too. He, Wille Boe, Butchy and another of his friends, Curry Boy, were in tight together and ran up and down the project block from daylight until the street lights came on when many of the kids under ten-years old had to go in the house. A few times Grandma had to go and search Humphrey out when he and his little crew would disappear around the corner or up to the project's playground, and a few times she had to whip his behind. Humphrey was seven-years old now and had broken out of his enclosed world of anger. Grandma cooked for him, bathed him; disciplined him when he needed it, and tried to buy him clothes to keep him clean but she gave up after a few weeks of him rolling around in the dirt. When school started back, she stressed that he change his clothes after school and of course to do his homework before he went outside. The school was not far, just on the other side of the project's playground, and he and his friends walked every morning, and they stopped and played on the way home every day. The children at the project school were a bit more aggressive than Humphrey was use to from when he attended the other school, and he ran across a few other boys who wanted to challenge his character. One boy in particular, Calvin Paul, would say something mean to Humphrey and taunt him whenever he saw him. One time Calvin and his friend, Kevin Lee, confronted Humphrey after school and tried to take his lunch box. Willie Boe knew Calvin and told Calvin to leave Humphrey alone and Calvin backed down. The next day, Humphrey was alone because he left the class later than the other kids and Calvin and Kevin Lee were still hanging around outside on the playground.
Humphrey came out of the door and saw them on the playground and veered away to go around but Kevin Lee saw him and pointed, telling Calvin he was alone. Calvin and Kevin Lee both were bigger than Humphrey and were a grade higher than Humphrey. Kevin Lee, especially, was a big boy for his age, sort of chubby and standing a couple of inches over Calvin and Calvin standing about two inches over Humphrey. Calvin was lean and had long arms and his two front teeth hung from under his top lip. He had a long afro and always had an afro pick stuck in the back of his hair. Calvin grinned when he saw Humphrey and started in his direction. Humphrey tucked his lunch box under his arm when he saw them coming. He looked into the distance for Willie Boe or Butchy but they were not around so he dropped his head to the ground and kept walking, faster. Calvin walked up and stood in front of him, stopping Humphrey in his tracks. Humphrey looked up at him and then to Kevin Lee, who folded his arms trying to look tough. "What you got in that lunch box man?" Calvin said and pointed to it. Humphrey said nothing, he just stood there. His heart pounded a little as he stared into Calvin's face. Kevin Lee reached for the lunch box and Humphrey pulled it back. Kevin Lee looked shocked when Humphrey pulled back. Calvin reached for it and Humphrey snatched away again. Then Calvin stepped up and tried to take it and pulled at it as Humphrey pulled back. Kevin Lee grabbed Humphrey from behind around his chest and held him as Calvin pulled on the lunch box and finally snatched it out of Humphrey's hands. Humphrey struggled to get loose from Kevin Lee but he held him tight and Calvin popped open the lunch box and looked inside. There was an apple and a half a sandwich. Calvin grabbed the apple and threw it to the other side of the playground. Humphrey snatched away from Kevin Lee and charged Calvin. He rammed his head into Calvin's stomach and they both fell to the ground. Humphrey was swinging at Calvin and Kevin Lee ran up and grabbed Humphrey and pulled him off and Calvin jumped up and hit Humphrey in the face. Humphrey was stunned. He stood there in shock and then he saw blood dripping onto the ground and he felt his face. His nose was hurting and he noticed that it was his nose that was bleeding. It scared him and he looked at Calvin and charged him again, tackling him to the ground. He started throwing punches at his face with the intension of drawing blood from his nose like Calvin did his. Kevin Lee immediately ran and grabbed Humphrey from behind and threw him to the ground. Calvin jumped up and yelled at Humphrey.
"You punk!" he said and picked Humphrey's lunch box up off the ground and tucked it under his arm. "Let's go Lee." He said and he and Kevin Lee walked off. Humphrey got up and yelled to him to give him back his lunch box but Calvin and Kevin Lee kept walking. Humphrey yelled again but to no avail. He looked down at his pants and there was a hole in the knee and blood on his shirt. Now he was worried about what Grandma was going to do to him. He turned and ran toward home. When he got home, Grandma saw his clothes and whipped his butt, then asked him what happened and where the blood came from. She nursed his nose and asked him who was he fighting and where was his lunch box. He told her what happened and she fussed at him and told him he better get that lunch box back or she was going to whip him again. Willie Boe and Butchy came to see if he could come outside and Grandma said no, he was on punishment. Humphrey worked on his homework and thought about how he was going to get the lunch box back from Calvin. He did not want to get in more trouble with Grandma by fighting or for fighting in school, so he decided to find out where he lived and go to his house and ask for it back. The next morning on the way to school he asked Willie Boe where Calvin lived. Willie did not know but he told Humphrey that Curry Boy did. Curry Boy lived on the edge of the Perry Projects across the street from the Perryville neighborhood, which is where Calvin lived. Curry Boy watched Calvin and Kevin Lee cross Lester Avenue at the stop light every day. Curry Boy's older brother took him across Lester Avenue one day to see his friend and Curry Boy saw Calvin standing on his porch with his younger brother, Curtis Paul. He waved at Calvin but Calvin ignored him. Curry Boy told Humphrey he knew where Calvin lived but warned him not to go across Lester Avenue. The Perryville community, on the other side of Lester Avenue, had a bad reputation with the people in the projects. Humphrey was not afraid of crossing Lester Avenue more than he was afraid of going home without his lunch box, so he asked Curry Boy to come with him to Calvin's house. Curry Boy was a little dude, smaller than Humphrey. He was thin with a small head and nappy hair and he wore thick glasses.
After school that day, Humphrey and Curry Boy met at the back door and walked up to the corner of Lester Avenue and Drew Street. It was busy with cars passing. Humphrey had never been to the edge of the projects by himself, only with Grandma and Mrs. Wilson whenever they walked to the corner store. He and Curry Boy watched the cars pass as they contemplated crossing the street by themselves. They decided to wait for the safety lady to hold up her stop sign and cross the street; and then they waited on the corner in front of Kranks Grocery Store. When they saw Calvin coming, they ran around to the back of the store and peeked out. The plan was to follow him home and then go to the door, when Kevin Lee or any of his friends was not with him. Humphrey did not want to get into another fight; he figured he would just ask for the lunch box and avoid a fight. They watched Calvin walk down Drew Street with Kevin Lee and they walked a few houses behind him. Humphrey kept looking back making sure he knew how to get back across the street and not get lost. Kevin Lee kept going straight down the street and Calvin turned and crossed Drew Street and started walking down the side street headed for his house on the next block. They followed until he reached the front porch and went in the house. Then they stopped and talked about what they were going to do.
"Come on." Humphrey said and nudged Curry Boy. Curry Boy looked at him not wanting to go. Humphrey asked him was he scared and Curry Boy said no. "Well come on then." He said and pulled his arm with him. They started toward the house. The house was a small frame house with dirt where grass was supposed to be and a tall tree in front with roots coming out of the ground. The railings and stairs were wooden and there were some old, ragged lawn chairs on the front porch. Humphrey slowly started up the stairs and Curry Boy stood on the sidewalk. Humphrey turned around and waved Curry Boy to come up the stairs with him. Then the screen door flung open and Calvin walked out.
"What you doin' on my porch man?" he said and stopped in front of Humphrey. Humphrey looked up at him and formed his words as tough as he could.
"I want my lunch box back." He said and raised his head, proudly.
"Get off my porch." Calvin said and pushed Humphrey backward toward the stairs. Humphrey gathered his footing and stood upright with his head still raised.
"I want my lunch box Calvin." He said, louder and was starting to get upset. Calvin laughed and waved Humphrey off. Curtis came out onto the porch. He looked just like Calvin only shorter, with the two front teeth over his thick lip and his hair was cut low instead of an afro. Humphrey looked behind him to see if Curry Boy was still there and he was, coming up the stairs. Calvin yelled at Curry Boy to get off his porch and pushed him back down the stairs. Curry Boy stumbled and fell, and then he jumped up and looked around on the ground for a rock. When he found one, he threw it at Calvin but missed and it went through the front window of the house and it shattered and broke all over the porch. He and Humphrey stood in shock and then took off running. Calvin's mother's voice could be heard yelling from inside the house. The boys ran to Drew Street and then down to Lester Avenue and crossed. Humphrey knew then that he was in trouble and he still did not have the lunch box. He went home and told Grandma that he did not see Calvin in school and he would get the lunch box tomorrow. The next day Calvin's mother was up at the school asking about Humphrey Lawson. The principle called his Grandma and told her she needed to pay for the Paul's window and when Humphrey got home from school later his Grandma whipped his ass again. The ass whipping started from the corner where she waited for Humphrey from school and lasted all the way down the street and into the house. Calvin lied on him and said he broke the window when it was actually Curry Boy so now Humphrey wanted to kick Calvin's ass.
Humphrey did not wait until after school to confront Calvin; when he saw him in the lunchroom, the sting from the whipping his Grandma gave him sent an anger through him that pushed his right into his balled up fist as he approached Calvin's table. Calvin was sitting, eating with Kevin Lee and his brother as Humphrey approached. Calvin looked up at him with a mouth full of beans and Humphrey popped him in the face and the beans splattered out all over the table. Humphrey jumped back and threw up his fist. Calvin jumped up shocked from the hit and swung wildly at Humphrey, and missed. Humphrey ducked and balled up his fist and hit Calvin again in the head, then jumped back again. He saw his lunch box on the floor beside Calvin and reached down to get it. Calvin kicked the lunch box across the floor and Humphrey ran to get it. Calvin chased him down and grabbed him by the back of his shirt and swung him around and to the floor. Humphrey slammed against the table and his head started bleeding. He saw the blood and jumped up with his fist balled up. One of the teachers ran over and grabbed Calvin and then another teacher grabbed Humphrey. Humphrey snatched away and reached down to get his lunch box, this time he got it and tucked it under his arm. The teacher tried to take the lunch box from Humphrey but he held on tight. She pulled him by the arm and dragged him out of the lunchroom and down the hall. Calvin was being pulled by the other teacher. They were taken to the principal's office and sat down; both angry. The principle was not in the office so Calvin took the opportunity to threaten Humphrey.
"I'm gonna kick your ass after school boy." Calvin said. Humphrey was quiet and swinging his legs as he sat there, wiping the blood from his head and onto his pants. He knew this meant another ass whipping from Grandma but this time he was not going to be the only one getting whipped. He looked over at Calvin and decided to make his own threat.
"I'm gonna knock your big ass teeth out your mouth, punk." He said and turned his head back.
"Yo mama got big teeth." Calvin said and pushed his large afro back. These words cut Humphrey to the heart. He did not think Calvin knew anything about his mother and he wondered why he would say anything about her. Tears formed in his eyes and he pulled them back and reacted on the anger. He jumped up and rushed Calvin with punches to the head and face. Calvin threw up his hands to block the punches and fell out the chair. Humphrey started kicking him with every ounce of power he had in his foot. Calvin was trying to grab Humphrey's feet but he kept kicking and kicking. The teacher and the principal rushed in and grabbed Humphrey and tossed him back into the chair. The principal, Mr. Towers, yelled at Humphrey and walked around to his desk and pulled out this huge, wooden paddle and told Humphrey to lean against his desk. Humphrey was about to cry but did not. He placed his hands on the desk and the principal popped him four times with the paddle on his butt. It stung like hell and Humphrey grabbed his butt and squeezed it but he did not cry. Then the principal popped Calvin twice and Calvin started crying. It hurt that much. Humphrey looked at Calvin after that and knew then he was not as tough as he claimed. After the lecture from the principal, he gave Humphrey his lunch box back and called his Grandma. Humphrey was not too worried about his Grandma this time because he got the lunch box back. When he got home, Grandma did not touch him; she just rolled her eyes at him and told him to go to his room.