For some, death doesn’t saunter through the door until much later in life. Most usually get a chance to experience the nectar that life offers before having to cope with the fated quietus that befalls us all. Through my years, death has been a prevailing requiem. One that would ring often, requiring me to absorb the different cultures and traditions, dependent on who’s family the pale horse would offer her ride to. Like most things in life, you always remember your first. Your first “anything” typically guides and molds your way of thinking and how you approach certain situations. My first accord with death was thrust upon me at age nine, to which I would later dub the “Southern Death Culture.”
Like many nine year old boys, my days were filled with running around the neighborhood trying to out run boredom. Playing pick up games of football, riding bikes, kicking rocks, poking dead things with a stick. Ya know, fun stuff. The street I lived on was vibrant and multi cultured to say the least. Small brightly colored homes, yards littered with gardens of various flowers and edible foods. Of coarse, that’s if they weren’t trampled by thunderous clops of tiny feet scrambling for a ball, or from the typical scuffle that would break out when one couldn’t decide who’s turn it was. The cultural make up of this neighborhood was African-American and Caucasian. Sprinkled in were a few Hispanics to spice up the aroma of the most delicious cuisine’s that would fill the streets daily. All us little kids were never without nourishment. Even though there was not a lot of money to go around, someone’s Mamma was always cooking.
My first best friend was a little black boy named Leon. Up until I met his family, in my mind, all black people were Leon’s. Not named Leon, but were Leon’s. His Mamma would just laugh, thought that was the darnedest thing. She said of all the things that she’d been called, this was the most precious. My Mom had told me they were African-Americans. But that didn’t make sense. That’s two different things I thought. So I asked her once. She said, “We ain’t African-Americans baby, we’re proud black folk. There’s a difference, we ain’t from Africa. I’ve never had to hunt for food neither. My food comes from right here.” Then she pointed her giant sausage like finger at the olive colored Fridgidare. Wasn’t sure if it was the mass amount of coupons she was pointing at, or the mighty green monster humming in the corner of the brightly lit kitchen we were standing in. “Leon!? Get your big ole‘ head down here, don’t keep snow pea waitin’.” she said. Snow pea is what she called me because she said I was “as white as a fresh blanket of snow and as sweet as a pea.” Leon’s older brother, Michael, said it was because I smelt like piss and white vinegar. Michael was 16 and all us little one’s thought he was the coolest, even though he teased us mercilessly. But he always looked out for us and made sure we didn’t get into too much trouble, even though he was always in trouble himself.
As Leon came bumbling down the stairs I laughed because I realized his Mamma was right. He did have a big head. It wasn’t so much the cranium, but his Afro. It was enormous. Dome shaped and bouncy. He called it nappy. It was a little coarse, but it was awesome. I wanted one in the worst way. But I was stuck with shoulder length blonde hair, “So white it looked like a Q-tip” Michael would say. “Ain’t no white boy look right with a Fro any how. It ain’t even a Fro on a whitey, it’s a perm, and that ain’t right. Brady Bunch lookin’ turkey.”
After Leon and I got wrestled down to the ground, for squirting him with our squirt guns for making fun of us, we squirmed away and ran out the raggedy old screen door that was barely hanging on to a cracked door frame. Laughing, through the chipped door paint that was flying through the air, we took off through the yard, jumped the shrubs that looked like giant elephant testicles, and escaped down the street where a pick up game of street football had just begun. This was the game. Tackle football on hot lava like pavement. Don’t ask. Twas brutal, but fun, and you learned how not to fall with your hands straight out. Our Mexican friend Jimmy learned that the hard way when he broke his wrist while getting tackled from behind. You tuck and roll or don’t get caught.
As the afternoon wore on, Leon and I were sitting on the curb counting our road rash and picking the gravel out of our elbows and knees, when we heard Mamma start to yell at Michael. This was nothing new. Michael was always in trouble for something. Being it school trouble, not doing his chores, and sometimes even the law. This time, it was school again. Even though we were a few houses away we could hear what was being hollered. Apparently he had some girl he was dating and both of them were skipping school. He got her pregnant and they wanted to move in together and he got a job. But Mamma wanted none of it. School was her thing. Their daddy left before Leon was born and his Mamma was working and going to night school to be a nurse. She didn’t want her babies to struggle like she had to. Michael didn’t care, he made up his mind. As Leon and I were trying to figure out where to go, we saw Michael’s girlfriend walking towards the house. We decided it was time to run to my house because we new it wasn’t going to be good.
While we were in my room playing Star Wars, the fight raged on across the street at Leon’s. Michael’s girlfriend had come over to tell him that her Dad was sending her to another state to live with her Grandma and they needed to break up. Michael flipped out. He said, “Let’s leave, we’ll get married, I’ll work full time and we’ll get our own place.” She didn’t want to. She wanted to give up the baby, live with her grandma, finish High School and go to College. Michael didn’t want to hear any more. He was frantic and loosing it. He ran out to the garage with his Mamma and girlfriend following. He grabbed the red gallon gasoline jug and proceeded to dump it all over himself and declare that, “this isn’t happening. Everyone’s against me and now you’ve turned my girlfriend on me.” He said he was going to light himself up if this is the way things are going to be. With his Mamma telling him to hush up and get inside to wash up before the fumes burnt his eyes, Michael pulled out a lighter. Not realizing that even a spark can ignite the fumes from the gas, Michael flicked the lighter and was engulfed in flames, as well as part of the garage. The tortured screams were soul piercing. What was told to me later was that he also drank some of the gas, so he burned from the inside as well. There was nothing that could of saved him. I don’t recall much more as the parents in the neighborhood hood kept all us little kid’s kinda sheltered from the chaos that ensued. Just smoke and a stench that I had no idea what it was. The sirens were loud too as the Fire Department and police pulled up. Mamma was screamin‘ and cryin‘. Which in turn made Leon shake.
The next few days were filled with sorrow and I could see plates of various foods being delivered from all the other Moms in the neighborhood. But in Mammas house all you could here was singing. Then crying. Ladies would show up in big hats and fancy dresses too. That’s when the singing was loud. Mamma used to sing these hymns all the time but now I got the feeling they meant something totally different. Then one morning I saw them pile into a cab. Leon was crying and Mamma was staring at the charred and dried crusted garage. Just shaking her head. I ran over to say hi and ask where they were going. She said “ Baby we going home for awhile. Goin’ back too the South to do things right by Michael. You just go along and be good for your Mamma.” She gave me the biggest bear hug and kissed my on the cheek and told me to shoo. I waved to Leon and headed off back home.
A whole summer went by before I saw his Mamma. They took Michael’s body back to Atlanta, where they were from, to have the funeral. While there, she decided to move herself and Leon back to be with family. She came back to get a few things and to come over to say goodbye and talk with me. She said Leon misses me and maybe I could come to visit some time. I asked what happened. She said, “Baby, you pay it no mind, this is something grown folks shouldn’t have to witness let alone children.” I asked “what happened to Michael, my Momma says he died, where did he go? What happens…” She stopped me before I could finish and said something that stayed with me all these years. “Boy, don’t you concern yourself with matters you have no control over. Live your life. All we can do is hope there is a Good Lord above and we gotta place to go when we die. If not, then it doesn’t make a difference, you’re dead. Live your life. Make good decisions. That’s all life is. Decisions. Good ones and bad ones baby. You’re a smart little man, just live baby.”
She left that afternoon while I was sitting in the driveway of my house. Sitting on my bike thinking about life. At nine. Thinking about Leon. Thinking about Michael. Thinking about their Mamma and how sad she must be. I guess you just gotta do what Momma says, “live your life.”
© Matt Carlson 2012