as part of our New Orleans Special Issue.
The Dead Man
by Adam Gnuse
There wasn’t all too much left of the dead man besides the bones and what must have been his belt buckle. His skull was still intact, but one of his arms was broken and he was missing most of his fingers and toes. He lay underneath one of the large, draping branches of the trees surrounding the sandpit, right outside the clearing we used. Even with the corpse lying in the shadows, it was a perfect hangout; on the river side of the levee, in the batture by the water’s edge, we were free from any adults trying to assert their authority over us. Besides, we had grown to like the dead man and had begun to treat him like he was one of us. We avoided pissing on him and sometimes, we would even pretend to hold conversations with him. We would tell him jokes, ask if he “boned” any girls lately, or maybe just pass him a joe.
Once, after a few hits and beers, a girl and I were talking by a bonfire. The rest of our friends had gone off by the river’s edge to fool around and see how much they could do without falling into the deadly current. The girl, I don’t recall her name, started talking about the dead man. She told me that he was once just like us, some teenager sick of the stress and the work of everyday life. She said that he came out here one night and just stared up at the moon creeping across the horizon. I found my own eyes drifting towards the sky, the fluorescent moon shrouded by thin strips of river fog. She said that he saw himself chasing after his aspirations and dreams like someone running after the moon, never able to catch it yet always keeping it just in sight. He had an epiphany that night, he stopped chasing his moon, he simply sat and waited; he knew it would pass by again without his running.
I told her that we were just like him. “Fuck life,” I said, “let’s just stay at the pit and never leave.” She smiled at me then, and we brought a blanket under the dead man’s tree. We slid up and down each other’s bodies, thrilled by the burning life we felt from each other’s nakedness, aroused by the dead man who wasn’t more than a few feet away.
There are the three of us, under the hanging branches, motionless, watching the moon’s reflection ripple in the murky river water; not far off, boys shout at a passing cruise ship, drop their pants and wave; other teenagers begin to shuffle back towards the levee, stepping over piles of empty beer cans and tracking sand across old ratted blankets littered with used condoms; miles away, their parents have left porch lights on, waiting; somewhere a siren screams through the night, hollow, like the dead man’s eyes; and we watch the moon’s slow procession, like a ferry in a dead river.
Adam Gnuse attends Lusher High School.
by Angelica Robinson
Here we are, three of my four kids Pharah, Yahriel, and Emmanuel on our way to visit their brother Hezekiah at N.O.A.H. “Mama, why we gotta go see him every day? He gets on my nerves. Everything is more peaceful without him anyway, plus my back hurts and feet are swelling, I’m hungry and it’s too damn hot to be waiting on the bus,” Pharah complained as we waited. Yahriel wasn’t complaining as much as she was and he had a right to. Everyday he comes straight from his lifeguard classes to meet us at the Magazine bus stop. He trains at the Audubon pool, it’s not that long of a walk. Truly the bus was taking longer than usual, I hope we don’t miss visiting. It was so hot I could see heat waves rising from the rooftops of passing cars and just to add to the misery, Emanuel, my youngest, was crying. Crying for his daddy. Their father called me ’round six-thirty this morning, he’s been doing this everyday since I “took his kids away.” He wanted to know where we were, he wanted to see his children. I refuse to tell him. He really should’ve thought about what he was doing. Just imagine if the neighbors had called the police. Those pigs wouldn’t have wanted to hear my side of the story. All they would’ve seen was Pharah’s black eye, which was done by Hezekiah. They would’ve wanted to know what I was doing while Hezekiah got a belt swung across his face. I hate to hear Emmanuel cry like that, he misses his daddy like any two year old would. He’s so young, all he knows is that he misses his playmate.
Even though he begs me to bring “his kids home” I just don’t feel that he’s stable. Sometimes I feel that he should be locked away in place of Hezekiah. He’s a grown man, twenty years my senior actually, I can’t force him to get help. So in the meanwhile, we’ll be staying at The New Orleans Guest House. It’s a little pink hotel on a side street, right next to the little shop where I got my first tattoo, which is _Anthony_ on the right side of my chest. We both had each other’s names tattooed instead of getting an engagement ring or wedding bands. The little hotel isn’t bad. Anthony gave me a weekly allowance, I didn’t splurge, I stashed money away for times like this. This is putting a dent in my pocket— well, I should say my Crown Royal bag. It sure beats wondering if Anthony’s gonna click out and turn into the Hulk. Just to be safe I sit a chair in front of the door every night, if anybody’s gonna take my kids out it’s gonna be me ’cause I brought them in this world.
“I’m looking for an extension cord, dem niggas gon’ learn not to piss in the bed even if I gotta beat the skin off ’em!”
See, my son Hezekiah is the bad apple of the bunch. His father is in denial; he would say “Ain’t nothing wrong with that nigga, he just want attention, Angel.” He’s always had a problem with my way of handling the kids. He feels that I’m too lenient and I feel that he’s too strict. I mean he doesn’t just spank them, he beats them like runaway slaves. Hezekiah always gets the worst of it. My mama told me it’s because he’s lighter than the rest of the kids. See, that doesn’t make sense to me because Anthony is also light skinned, with sandy red, curly hair. They look so much alike, could that be the reason why he treats him so badly? When Hezekiah was born his father didn’t play with him the way he played with Pharah, Yahriel, and Emmanuel. I just figured it was because he didn’t have the energy but when Emmanuel was born, he seemed to have a sudden burst of life. You know Pharah, she was born in ’91, right after Anthony’s mother died, then came Yahriel two years later, then Hezekiah sixteen months later and as if I weren’t tired of having kids, Emmanuel was born twelve years later.
I taught Hezekiah how to play football, I would even sit there and play those racing video games. Need For Speed, that one was my favorite. They even had the li’l red and black game wheel to go with it. Anthony bought it for Hezekiah’s birthday. Yea, I remember sitting on that hard-ass yellow and white checkered tile, before we got the carpet. “Mama, how you learned to race like that? You was side swiping and switchin’ lanes like a pro. Boy, I wish daddy would play with me, I wonder if he could do that,” Hezekiah would say as he watched me play.
I remember the first time Anthony showed me his violent side. When the kids were little, Yahriel and Hezekiah slept with me and their dad. Yahriel and Hezekiah both had a habit of peeing in the bed. We never really chastised them for it, we both just figured it was a phase but one night Anthony just got fed up. That’s the only way I can explain his irrational behavior. Honestly I often got tired of them pissing on my satin sheets but it wasn’t a big deal, I mean what do we have a washer and dryer for?
“Both y’all get out my fuckin’ bed and go in the bathroom. Sooner or later y’all gon’ learn not to piss in the bed!” Anthony yelled as he ran the bath water.
I changed the sheets, then searched through the drawers to find their changing clothes. I could hear Anthony fumbling around the dark kitchen.
“What are you looking for, Babe?” I asked him.
“I’m looking for an extension cord. Dem niggas gon’ learn not to piss in the bed even if I gotta beat the skin off ’em!”
“Don’t you think that’s a little unnecessary, they’re only babies, we’ve just potty trained them!”
“Look, either you gon’ help me find the damn cord, or you gon’ shut up. I’m gon’ handle this the way I wanna handle it. Go sit down somewhere and don’t interfere with me and my sons, okay!”
Sometimes I wonder if I shoulda stopped him but honestly all I could do was watch. I mean, who was I to stand up to the man who was taking care of me and my four kids? Anthony’s been providing for me since I was sixteen. Yahriel and Hezekiah got in the tub. I bathed them one by one with their yellow sponge and Johnson’s Vanilla Oatmeal bubble bath. They laughed and played and gave each other bubble mustaches. I left them to their play.
“Get out da tub! Don’t y’all put them dry clothes on.” Anthony walked to the bathroom with the thin white extension cord in hand. I hurried behind him to see what he was going to do. “What the hell you think you doing Anthony?” He pushed through the door. Swap, swap, he swung the cord. “Don’t run, don’t fuckin’ run,” Anthony yelled. “Mama, mama! Daddy I’m sorry, I ain’t gone do it no more,” Hezekiah screeched. I watched. I felt stuck or I felt shackled. For some reason Hezekiah was getting most of the licks. Was it because he was calling for me? Their daddy hated that. He said I babied them and that I was going to turn our sons gay.
“Anthony stop! That’s that’s _e-e-enough_. He’s freakin’ bleeding, he’s bleeding, your gonna leave marks.”
“Move out the fucking way, bitch. Call the fucking police. Ain’t none of y’all gon’ stop me!” From that one statement I knew that Anthony had lost all common sense.
I tried to make him stop but the louder I screamed, the harder he swung. When he was done Hezekiah had welts all over his face, arms and legs. What got me were the ones in his face. Yahriel had welts on his legs and arms but not nearly as bad as Hezekiah’s. That night shook me up. I was scared, I was very scared. Anthony left. I don’t know where he went but I didn’t see him for a week and that was our first separation. Thank God they weren’t in school yet, because the teachers would’ve called those people on me and they would’ve took all three of my babies; Emmanuel wasn’t born yet. I’m the one who felt every bit of the birthing pain and I’ll be damned if I lose them to the system.
See, people don’t understand why I’m still with Anthony. Honestly we don’t have problems with our marriage. Each of our separations was because of him chastising Hezekiah. He doesn’t whip Hezekiah anymore, at least I don’t call it whipping. Those two fight until Hezekiah runs and when he runs it still ain’t over. Yea, Anthony has a temper, I knew that from the start. We don’t fuss over money, household chores, I never even had a thought on adultery on my end, don’t know about his. Like I said, I’ve been with Anthony since I was sixteen years old. Sad to say, but he’s all I know. I never had to work at the grocery store, never had to work at McDonald’s. My mother was on disability and my dad was a retired veteran. We weren’t rich at all. Anthony saved me from wearing rags and dollar-store sneakers. He managed to keep my hair tracked and permed, kept my French tips up and always provided me with a new pair of Air Max anytime I asked. I was living good. What more can a girl ask for? Thank God my mother didn’t know much about Anthony, because she would’ve forbade me to see him. We kept our relationship from my parents for about two years, ’til I was eighteen. They met Christmas of 1990. Anthony treated the family to dinner at Copeland’s. As any mother would tell a man, she said in a calm motherly tone, “Nigga, you better not hurt my baby girl. I promise you, if she sheds a tear, I’ll cut you from ear to ear.” Anthony laughed but as soon as dinner was over I found out what he was hiding behind that chuckle. From that day he never welcomed my parents into our home but I still found a way for her to see her grandbabies. Anthony didn’t care for that too much. He said, “All that mutha fucka gon’ do is turn my children against me, I don’t want them round her.” Who was he to tell me that my children couldn’t see their grandmother, so every weekend I brought them to see her.
She always kept incense burning. Oh, that strong scent of cocoa butter and black soap meant safety to my senses. As old as I am, my mother always kept her door open for me and my four kids. She only had a one bedroom apartment, but after many nights of fleeing from Anthony and his rage, we knew exactly how to get comfortable. Hezekiah and Yahriel always claimed their territory. They would cuddle up underneath their grandmother’s glass table. My mama had been having that table since me and my brothers were kids. When we were growing up, the living room was always off limits but in special circumstances, such as our late night visits, the rules were flexible. I miss that shelter. She and I used to always have prayer sessions. She knew exactly how to ease my mind. Although she didn’t want Anthony and me together, she never forced her opinion. She knew when a woman is fed up, she’s fed up and there’d be nothing anyone could do about it. That’s where I am right now. Too bad I don’t have her home as a hide out anymore. Her comfort is now six hours away. Honestly I’m thinking about moving to Nashville to be with her and my father. At least I’d have support there. There are a few things stopping me. I don’t want to end my marriage—twenty years of my life. I don’t want my children to be fatherless especially my sons. Lastly Hezekiah has six weeks until he can be considered for release. He’s in N.O.A.H. under suicide watch. I lied, I had to get him somewhere safe. I had to keep Pharah safe from him. I can’t leave, I can’t just abandon him in N.O.A.H. The state will take away my parental rights, then he’ll be in their hands, he’d be just another forgotten mentally ill nigger. It’s a catch twenty-two—whichever way it goes, I lose. I lose money, ninety dollars a night if I continue to stay in the hotel. I lose my daughter’s respect if I go crawling back to Anthony.
After waiting about a half an hour for it, the Magazine bus pulled up. Yahriel quickly got onto the bus as Pharah and I struggled to pull the stroller onto it. I paid our bus fare: five dollars. This had become an everyday expense since Hezekiah had been in the New Orleans Adolescent Hospital. I had to visit him every day. I’d never been separated from any of my children but I felt that it was safe for him to be there. N.O.A.H is a place for mentally ill children. Hezekiah, he isn’t the type that cuts himself, talks about committing suicide or anything. He’s violent, he likes to fight and he seems to be immune to pain. I just can’t sit there and allow his daddy to beat him because if a belt or extension cord doesn’t get noise from him, his dad turns to his fists. That’s part of the reason I had to get him out of the house. I can’t do it all alone; I had to get some help.
Hezekiah also loves to fight his brothers and sister. See, when his daddy leaves, he terrorizes my household. He especially loves to fight his sister Pharah. I just can’t allow him to do that. It’s not just the fact she’s my only girl, but she is also five months pregnant. Her being pregnant may be part of the reason he targets her. Maybe he’s mad at her. I know that Pharah has some nasty ways; I have to try my damndest not to punch her out.
So, the final episode that landed Hezekiah in N.O.A.H. was a fight between him and Pharah. Anthony caught him punching Pharah in the eye, Anthony began to punch him. Hezekiah fought back. Than I jumped between the two of them and Anthony hit me. Yahriel was sitting on Pharah’s bed holding Emmanuel. When he saw Anthony hit me, he put Emmanuel down and joined in. Hezekiah broke out running and ran into the backyard. Anthony went after him. Me and Yahriel followed. Pharah sat on the carpet, crying, rocking Emmanuel. The last thing I remember is me on top of Hezekiah; I shielded him with my body. Anthony couldn’t get to him, and then it all stopped. Anthony got into his truck and pulled off. It was just like the Bible scripture my mama often quoted. She never quoted it exactly how it was written, you know, she always had to add her own li’l twist. “In the end days, it’ll be mother against daughter, father against son, and husband against wife!” Me and the kids had time to pack. I told them to grab some clothes and anything valuable to them. I took my Crown Royal bag stash and we ventured off into the night to find shelter.
So now here we are, the five of us on our way to visit Hezekiah. Pharah was staring out the window and rubbing her watermelon sized belly. She looks just like me; actually she is me when I was her age. I was her age or maybe a little older when I got pregnant with her, a senior in high school. She’s seventeen, her baby’s father is twenty-five. I know anyone hearing this would consider me a negligent parent, but before you judge me take a look at my logic. Yes, I did know that Pharah was dating Milton and yes I could’ve tried to stop her. Why would I? She would’ve done it behind my back anyway. I did everything I could possibly do to help her prevent pregnancy. I preached abstinence; that went over her head. I had to step in, give her other options. I would’ve been less of a parent if I sat around in denial. I taught her about condoms, brought her to the store myself to get them. I also brought her to the clinic, got her on the pills. Where did I go wrong? Yes, I did keep all this from her father. Honestly I felt that he wouldn’t be reasonable. Despite all my efforts, she still slipped up. You can raise your children right, but they’re still going to do what they want to do. Pharah is three days away from her eighteenth birthday—July 28. Although she did get set back, Pharah waddled across the stage on graduation day very proudly. Milton, her grandparents, her brothers and I sat in the crowd and cheered her on. Her dad refused to show.
We got off the bus right in front of N.O.A.H. After two weeks of visiting my son there, the guards at the front gate definitely have become familiar with my face.
“Mrs. Jenkins, how are you today?” The guard greets me.
“Oh, I’m fine, thanks. Am I late?”
“No. You have ten minutes to visit with him. You and Pharah go up stairs. I’ll watch those two!”
“Man, I don’t feel like walking up all them stairs, Mama. You can go, I’ll chillax in the nice air-conditioned waiting room,” Pharah said.
“All right girl. Go ahead and do what you wanna. Thanks, sir. It would be very nice of you to watch them,” I said. I knew that he was going to be too busy flirting with women and teenage girls or maybe yapping his trap on the phone. Yahriel knew exactly how to keep up with Emmanuel.
“No prob. Hurry, don’t forget your pass!” the guard said with a cheese-eating smile.
Me and Pharah walked passed the gate to the main building. Yahriel held Emmanuel’s hand and walked him over to the swings and brightly-colored slides under the oak trees. Pharah and I walked into the main building. She made herself comfortable on the waiting room sofa. I hurried upstairs to salvage what was left of visiting.
Angelica Robinson is a NOCCA student.