Authors: Angie Thomas
That’s when I realized Williamson is one world and Garden Heights is another, and I have to keep them separate.
It doesn’t matter what I’m thinking about doing today though—my parents have their own plans for me. Momma tells me I’m going to the store with Daddy. Before Seven leaves for work, he comes to my room in his Best Buy polo and khakis and hugs me.
“Love you,” he says.
See, that’s why I hate it when somebody dies. People do stuff they wouldn’t usually do. Even Momma hugs me longer and tighter with more sympathy than “just because” in it. Sekani, on the other hand, steals bacon off my plate, looks at my phone, and purposely steps on my foot on his way out. I love him for it.
I bring a bowl of dog food and leftover bacon outside to our pit bull, Brickz. Daddy gave him his name ’cause he’s always been as heavy as some bricks. Soon as he sees me, he jumps and fights to break free from his chain. And when I get close enough, his hyper butt jumps up my legs, nearly taking me down.
“Get!” I say. He crouches onto the grass and stares up at me, whimpering with wide puppy-dog eyes. The Brickz version of an apology.
I know pit bulls can be aggressive, but Brickz is a baby most of the time. A
baby. Now, if somebody tries to break in our house or something, they won’t meet the baby Brickz.
While I feed Brickz and refill his water bowl, Daddy picks bunches of collard greens from his garden. He cuts roses that have blooms as big as my palms. Daddy spends hours out here every night, planting, tilling, and talking. He claims a good garden needs good conversation.
About thirty minutes later, we’re riding in his truck with the windows down. On the radio, Marvin Gaye asks what’s going on. It’s still dark out, though the sun peeks through the clouds, and hardly anybody is outside. This early in the morning it’s easy to hear the rumbling of eighteen-wheelers on the freeway.
Daddy hums to Marvin, but he couldn’t carry a tune if it came in a box. He’s wearing a Lakers jersey and no shirt underneath, revealing tattoos all over his arms. One of my baby photos smiles back at me, permanently etched on his arm with
Something to live for, something to die for
written beneath it. Seven and Sekani are on his other arm with the same words beneath them. Love letters in the simplest form.
“You wanna talk ’bout last night some more?” he asks.
“A’ight. Whenever you wanna.”
Another love letter in the simplest form.
We turn onto Marigold Avenue, where Garden Heights is waking up. Some ladies wearing floral headscarves come out
the Laundromat, carrying big baskets of clothes. Mr. Reuben unlocks the chains on his restaurant. His nephew Tim, the cook, leans against the wall and wipes sleep from his eyes. Ms. Yvette yawns as she goes in her beauty shop. The lights are on at Top Shelf Spirits and Wine, but they’re always on.
Daddy parks in front of Carter’s Grocery, our family’s store. Daddy bought it when I was nine after the former owner, Mr. Wyatt, left Garden Heights to go sit on the beach all day, watching pretty women. (Mr. Wyatt’s words, not mine.) Mr. Wyatt was the only person who would hire Daddy when he got out of prison, and he later said Daddy was the only person he trusted to run the store.
Compared to the Walmart on the east side of Garden Heights, our grocery is tiny. White-painted metal bars protect the windows and door. They make the store resemble a jail.
Mr. Lewis from the barbershop next door stands out front, his arms folded over his big belly. He sets his narrowed eyes on Daddy.
Daddy sighs. “Here we go.”
We hop out. Mr. Lewis gives some of the best haircuts in Garden Heights—Sekani’s high-top fade proves it—but Mr. Lewis himself wears an untidy Afro. His stomach blocks his view of his feet, and since his wife passed nobody tells him that his pants are too short and his socks don’t always match. Today one is striped and the other is argyle.
“The store used to open at five fifty-five on the dot,” he says. “Five fifty-five!”
Daddy unlocks the front door. “I know, Mr. Lewis, but I told you, I’m not running the store the same way Wyatt did.”
“It sho’ is obvious. First you take down his pictures—who the hell replaces a picture of Dr. King with some nobody—”
“Huey Newton ain’t a nobody.”
“He ain’t Dr. King! Then you hire thugs to work up in here. I heard that Khalil boy got himself killed last night. He was probably selling that stuff.” Mr. Lewis looks from Daddy’s basketball jersey to his tattoos. “Wonder where he get
Daddy’s jaw tightens. “Starr, turn the coffeepot on for Mr. Lewis.”
So he can get the hell outta here
, I say to myself, finishing Daddy’s sentence for him.
I flick the switch on the coffeepot at the self-serve table, which Huey Newton watches over from a photograph, his fist raised for black power.
I’m supposed to replace the filter and put new coffee and water in, but for talking about Khalil Mr. Lewis gets coffee made from day-old grounds.
He limps through the aisles and gets a honey bun, an apple, and a pack of hog head cheese. He gives me the honey bun. “Heat it up, girl. And you bet’ not overcook it.”
I leave it in the microwave until the plastic wrapper swells and pops open. Mr. Lewis eats it soon as I take it out.
“That thang hot!” He chews and blows at the same time.
“You heated it too long, girl. ’Bout to burn my mouth!”
When Mr. Lewis leaves, Daddy winks at me.
The usual customers come in, like Mrs. Jackson, who insists on buying her greens from Daddy and nobody else. Four red-eyed guys in sagging pants buy almost every bag of chips we have. Daddy tells them it’s too early to be that blazed, and they laugh way too hard. One of them licks his next blunt as they leave. Around eleven, Mrs. Rooks buys some roses and snacks for her bridge club meeting. She has droopy eyes and gold plating on her front teeth. Her wig is gold-colored too.
“Y’all need to get some Lotto tickets up in here, baby,” she says as Daddy rings her up and I bag her stuff. “Tonight it’s at three hundred million!”
Daddy smiles. “For real? What would you do with all that money, Mrs. Rooks?”
“Shiiit. Baby, the question is what I
do with all that money. Lord knows, I’d get on the first plane outta here.”
Daddy laughs. “Is that right? Then who gon’ make red velvet cakes for us?”
“Somebody else, ’cause I’d be gone.” She points to the display of cigarettes behind us. “Baby, hand me a pack of them Newports.”
Those are Nana’s favorites too. They used to be Daddy’s favorites before I begged him to quit. I grab a pack and pass it to Mrs. Rooks.
She’s staring at me moments after, patting the pack against
her palm, and I wait for
. The sympathy. “Baby, I heard what happened to Rosalie’s grandboy,” she says. “I’m so sorry. Y’all used to be friends, didn’t you?”
The “used to” stings, but I just say to Mrs. Rooks, “Yes, ma’am.”
“Hmm!” She shakes her head. “Lord, have mercy. My heart ’bout broke when I heard. I tried to go over there and see Rosalie last night, but so many people were already at the house. Poor Rosalie. All she going through and now this. Barbara said Rosalie not sure how she gon’ pay to bury him. We talking ’bout raising some money. Think you can help us out, Maverick?”
“Oh, yeah. Let me know what y’all need, and it’s done.”
She flashes those gold teeth in a smile. “Boy, it’s good to see where the Lord done brought you. Your momma would be proud.”
Daddy nods heavily. Grandma’s been gone ten years—long enough that Daddy doesn’t cry every day, but such a short while ago that if someone brings her up, it brings him down.
“And look at this girl,” Mrs. Rooks says, eyeing me. “Every bit of Lisa. Maverick, you better watch out. These li’l boys around here gon’ be trying it.”
“Nah, they better watch out. You know I ain’t having that. She can’t date till she forty.”
My hand drifts to my pocket, thinking of Chris and his texts. Shit, I left my phone at home. Needless to say, Daddy doesn’t know a thing about Chris. We’ve been together over a
year now. Seven knows, because he met Chris at school, and Momma figured it out when Chris would always visit me at Uncle Carlos’s house, claiming he was my friend. One day she and Uncle Carlos walked in on us kissing and they pointed out that friends don’t kiss each other like that. I’ve never seen Chris get so red in my life.
She and Seven are okay with me dating Chris, although if it was up to Seven I’d become a nun, but whatever. I can’t get the guts to tell Daddy though. And it’s not just because he doesn’t want me dating yet. The bigger issue is that Chris is white.
At first I thought my mom might say something about it, but she was like, “He could be polka dot, as long as he’s not a criminal and he’s treating you right.” Daddy, on the other hand, rants about how Halle Berry “act like she can’t get with brothers anymore” and how messed up that is. I mean, anytime he finds out a black person is with a white person, suddenly something’s wrong with them. I don’t want him looking at me like that.
Luckily, Momma hasn’t told him. She refuses to get in the middle of that fight. My boyfriend, my responsibility to tell Daddy.
Mrs. Rooks leaves. Seconds later, the bell clangs. Kenya struts into the store. Her kicks are cute—Bazooka Joe Nike Dunks that I haven’t added to my collection. Kenya always wears fly sneakers.
She goes to get her usual from the aisles. “Hey, Starr. Hey, Uncle Maverick.”
“Hey, Kenya,” Daddy answers, even though he’s not her uncle, but her brother’s dad. “You good?”
She comes back with a jumbo bag of Hot Cheetos and a Sprite. “Yeah. My momma wanna know if my brother spent the night with y’all.”
There she goes calling Seven “my brother” like she’s the only one who can claim him. It’s annoying as hell.
“Tell your momma I’ll call her later,” Daddy says.
“Okay.” Kenya pays for her stuff and makes eye contact with me. She jerks her head a little to the side.
“I’m gonna sweep the aisles,” I tell Daddy.
Kenya follows me. I grab the broom and go to the produce aisle on the other side of the store. Some grapes have spilled out from those red-eyed guys sampling before buying. I barely start sweeping before Kenya starts talking.
“I heard about Khalil,” she says. “I’m so sorry, Starr. You okay?”
I make myself nod. “I . . . just can’t believe it, you know? It had been a while since I saw him, but . . .”
“It hurts.” Kenya says what I can’t.
Fuck, I feel the tears coming. I’m not gonna cry, I’m not gonna cry, I’m not gonna cry. . . .
“I kinda hoped he’d be in here when I walked in,” she says softly. “Like he used to be. Bagging groceries in that ugly apron.”
“The green one,” I mutter.
“Yeah. Talking about how women love a man in uniform.”
I stare at the floor. If I cry now, I may never stop.
Kenya pops her Hot Cheetos open and holds the bag toward me. Comfort food.
I reach in and get a couple. “Thanks.”
We munch on Cheetos. Khalil’s supposed to be here with us.
“So, um,” I say, and my voice is all rough. “You and Denasia got into it last night?”
“Girl.” She sounds like she’s been waiting to drop this story for hours. “DeVante came over to me, right before it got crazy. He asked for my number.”
“I thought he was Denasia’s boyfriend?”
“DeVante not the type to be tied down. Anyway, Denasia walked over to start something, but the shots went off. We ended up running down the same street, and I clocked her ass. It was so funny! You should’ve seen it!”
I would’ve rather seen that instead of Officer One-Fifteen. Or Khalil staring at the sky. Or all that blood. My stomach twists again.
Kenya waves her hand in front of me. “Hey. You okay?”
I blink Khalil and that cop away. “Yeah. I’m good.”
“You sure? You real quiet.”
She lets it drop, and I let her tell me about the second round she has planned for Denasia.
Daddy calls me up front. When I get there, he hands me a twenty. “Get me some beef ribs from Reuben’s. And I want—”
“Potato salad and fried okra,” I say. That’s what he always has on Saturdays.
He kisses my cheek. “You know your daddy. Get whatever you want, baby.”
Kenya follows me out the store. We wait for a car to pass, the music blasting and the driver reclined so far back that only the tip of his nose seems to nod to the song. We cross the street to Reuben’s.
The smoky aroma hits us on the sidewalk, and a blues song pours outside. Inside, the walls are covered with photographs of civil rights leaders, politicians, and celebrities who have eaten here, like James Brown and pre-heart-bypass Bill Clinton. There’s a picture of Dr. King and a much younger Mr. Reuben.
A bulletproof partition separates the customers from the cashier. I fan myself after a few minutes in line. The air conditioner in the window stopped working months ago, and the smoker heats up the whole building.
When we get to the front of the line, Mr. Reuben greets us with a gap-toothed smile from behind the partition. “Hey, Starr and Kenya. How y’all doing?”
Mr. Reuben is one of the only people around here who actually calls me by my name. He remembers everybody’s names somehow. “Hey, Mr. Reuben,” I say. “My daddy wants his usual.”
He writes it on a pad. “All right. Beefs, tater salad, okra. Y’all want fried BBQ wings and fries? And extra sauce for you, Starr baby?”
He remembers everybody’s usual orders too somehow. “Yes, sir,” we say.
“All right. Y’all been staying out of trouble?”
“Yes, sir,” Kenya lies with ease.
“How ’bout some pound cake on the house then? Reward for good behavior.”
We say yeah and thank him. But see, Mr. Reuben could know about Kenya’s fight and would offer her pound cake regardless. He’s nice like that. He gives kids free meals if they bring in their report cards. If it’s a good one, he’ll make a copy and put it on the “All-Star Wall.” If it’s bad, as long as they own up to it and promise to do better, he’ll still give them a meal.