THE STONE BOY
Maybe she really should have caught a ride with Coach Allen. But listening to him going on and on about her blown plays and lack of defense during practice was one thing. To be trapped in a car with her basketball coach, only to hear him repeat how she was a total screw up was another. So Nicole left him standing there, his tie undone and his car door swung open in anticipation of her sitting in front. She thought about the fast food wrappers and discarded coffee cups hiding his armrest, the rumpled clothes piled in the back seat that he always said were going to the cleaners. Somehow he’d never gotten around to it. Just like she’d put off visiting her grandparents, never getting around to it until today. Turning down a ride didn’t seem like the smartest move once she was on the other side of town, lost with no real sense of where she was supposed to go. She kept on the lookout for landmarks, like a bank and a boarded up laundry mat, all the while dodging traffic until she almost ran head first into a light pole plastered with flyers, many of them showing a boy with a mischievous, familiar half smile. It was her younger brother Gabriel. She was used to the flyers. But not the spray painted
R.I.P. covering the words Have You Seen Him? That all too painful reminder almost made her walk past her grandparents’ street. Turn right at the corner . . . it’s the third house, the third one near a huge maple tree. Her ponytail bounced atop her head, the ends flicking against her cheeks and shoulders as she anxiously readjusted her Backpack. A few older girls cut their eyes her way while a group of kids chased each other in the street. The littlest ones stopped and gaped at her, all because she was new. A taunt sang out from across the street as she stopped in front of a colonial that seemed familiar. “Hey, is that your real hair? I bet it’s not. I bet it’s a weave.” “Who you looking for?” a male voice barked from the porch next door. The owner was a blonde haired teen who sounded just like a raspy, shouting in the mic rapper. “My-” Nicole didn’t get a chance to finish. Her grandmother came whizzing down the driveway, the bubble woven house coat she wore flapping open. Using a pigeon soft coo Jamesetta Torelli ooh’ed and aah’ed about how glad she was to see her grandbaby. Gathering Nicole in her arms Jamesetta gently touched the girl’s shoulders and hair as if to make sure everything was in place. “Oh you look so pretty, grandma’s baby-” “What’s she wearing? That’s so corny. Is that a uniform?” Yet another blunt observation came from across the street. “That outfit’s ugly. I still say that’s all weave on her head-” “It’s her hair!” Jamesetta shouted, tugging Nicole’s ponytail so hard her neck snapped back as proof. “My husband’s Italian, so her daddy’s half Italian. Now shut the hell up!” Nicole grimaced, her scalp and her pride wounded while her grandmother kept giving the evil eye to someone refusing to take her advice. A couple of girls were swearing up a storm because they just knew Jamesetta wasn’t talking to them. In between
being mobbed by a bunch of grade schoolers stroking her school jacket and tugging at her pleated skirt, Nicole nervously smiled down at them only to get shy giggles in return. “Never mind those fools,” Jamesetta said, her hands lovingly cupping Nicole’s cheeks. “I wanted to meet you at the bus stop, but your grandfather’s been acting up today.” Nicole kept a frozen smile on her face, her eyes wandering back to that blonde kid sitting on his porch. A bright eyed little girl with cornrows crooked a finger into her Backpack, asking questions all while her grandmother talked. Nicole’s mind was whirling, trying to process the activity around her. Was it always like this? Just a wild street full of nosy eyes and tongues quick with the insults? Okay, she could do this. She’d made friends with the hugely popular Deijanna, the most feared girl in school, so whatever these kids could dish out surely she could take it and then some. All she had to do was convince the leader and the rest would follow, just like in school. If she only knew who that person was. “Shut up before I come over and wrap that dog around yo damn neck. Now say something else.” It was that blonde kid, charging down the steps and giving off a menacing heat that clearly showed he was all set to harm the loudmouths across the street. Her grandmother smirked wider and carted her off, to the delirious laughter of the children surrounding them. “Come on, you don’t need to be around all this foolishness.” Jamesetta said. Good old grandma. With kids slowly trailing behind and hanging on their every word, they walked up the driveway towards the back door. “Did you say something’s wrong with grandpa?” Nicole finally managed to ask, still trying to keep an eye on the angry exchange between teens. At least it seemed to die down as she watched them meet in the middle of the street, utter a few more threats, then from out of nowhere a football spiraled high and long through the air, with most of the boys going long for a catch.
“This morning he snuck out the house again,” Jamesetta said, opening the back door wide enough for them both, a security door that was decorated with so many bars Nicole couldn’t make out if there was any glass in it. As it shut with a disheartening heavy clang, it was an omen of how life would be if she stayed with her grandparents. Those bars weren’t meant to keep strangers out. There were there to lock her in.
“Grandma, I can’t eat all this.” Nicole peered over a mound of mashed potatoes as high as a volcano, with gravy erupting in the middle and down the sides like lava. The whole table was full of food. Macaroni and cheese, cornbread, peas, even sweet potato pie made the table look like a baking contest. A well done porter house steak took up most of her plate. Jamesetta ordered Nicole to eat anyway, ignoring her pleas. “I know you’re not used to real food, what with all those years with your mother who never really learned how to cook-” she grumbled, shaking her head with a pitiful gaze. “I did try to teach her, but Adina was just triflin’.” Nicole picked up her fork only to put it back down again, feeling sick. She looked around the dining room with its white wooden china cabinet, drop leaf table and turntable in a stereo furniture cabinet. Some of the furniture was older than she was. “Of course I made a special dinner for my grandbaby,” Jamesetta was saying. “You always loved my cooking when your parents lived here-” Ugh. Here it comes. The Frenchy fried chicken story. “You used to mix up my fried chicken with French fries. I remember when you were two and you used to say you wanted to eat Frenchy fried chicken,” Jamesetta
laughed, and that started her grandfather laughing, though Nicole wasn’t sure if he even remembered. He was wearing a bib around his neck as her grandmother spoon fed him. In between bites she’d give him a cheer like he’d been a good boy or pucker up to kiss him on the lips. For the next few hours Nicole obediently finished all her sweet peas and most of her steak, half listening to her grandmother run down all the things wrong with her mother. When the phone miraculously rang with Adina on the other end, Nicole didn’t even pretend to want to stick around. “I’ll be back for a visit real soon grandma. I promise I won’t stay away so long like before,” she said, pulling on her jacket and telling her grandfather goodbye. Jamesetta didn’t answer. She just kept clearing food off the table, even offering to wrap a plate with leftovers for Nicole to take with her. “I know you’ll try, but Adina won’t let you. Look how she wouldn’t give us time together before she called.” There was a tremble in her voice, a signal of old wounds that hadn’t healed. “I need help around here Nicole. You see how bad the front lawn is, and my backyard with all those weeds. I don’t know why your father wanted to go and get himself arrested. It just didn’t make any sense.” Nicole went to look out the window to watch for her mother’s car, fascinated at a street filled with so many kids she thought there was a block party going on. With his head bobbing to a made up beat, the blonde teen from next door was clapping and howling in laughter because some other kid was rhyming. There were girls sashaying around the performers, so when the streetlight flickered on all their animated chatter was bathed under a white spotlight. Two headlights split the crowd as a familiar car horn blew a few times and a tall skinny boy shouted something, smacking the hood. Kids were on each side of the car, even blocking the front, acting as if they weren’t interested in moving. Don’t get out the car Mom . . . please don’t get out. I just want to go home. Nicole gave her grandmother a quick peck on the cheek, grappling with
her backpack and the heavy plate of food Jamesetta thrust into her hand. It was a struggle just trying to hold the door open, balance all the stuff and listen to her grandmother’s parting instructions. “Mom! I’m coming!” Nicole screamed, rushing out the backdoor, fearful when she didn’t see her mother’s new car. Not to worry. Adina was in the wrong driveway. “You need some help?” That sounded like the kid next door’s voice. “Thanks, I’ve got it,” she sang out, chewing the side of her lip as she balanced the food and tried not to trip on the cracked sidewalk. Adina already had her window rolled down, asking whether the hood was dented. Nicole ignored her mother, hopping into the shiny Lexus and throwing her bookbag on a rear seat. She grimaced at the trail of gravy on her jacket and all the peas rolling along the carpet. “Nicole, you’re ruining my upholstery,” Adina moaned, backing out and shifting into drive so quickly that both their heads jerked forward. “I swear your grandmother probably did it on purpose. What made her think you needed all that damn food?” “It was for both of us mom. She was trying to be nice.” Nicole muttered, noticing that boy staring at them. “Is my hood dented? Because I swear if one of those kids, and I know exactly which one it was because I saw his little black ass real good. If my car is damaged-” “What mom? What? You gonna go complain more about your car getting a dent than your own missing son?” The car stopped so fast Nicole almost hit the dashboard. Her mother glared in response, like an exotic cat about to pounce. With a newsboy cap over her short hair and wearing low hipped, form fitting jeans, Adina’s stiletto heeled shoe tapped the gas pedal, pulling off slower this time. “See, this was why I didn’t want you over here,” Adina began. “You should have been with me at church. Pastor Quincy’s planning a big rally for Gabriel-”
Nicole’s groan came out louder than she meant it to. But hearing that man’s name, the man who’d had her father arrested . . . The plate of food was leaking on her skirt, and her mother was still nagging about her grandmother and some other stuff she didn’t want to hear. Nicole kept her eyes on the side mirror, watching those kids laugh and clown in the street. She was jealous of how happy they seemed to be. And she wanted so badly to be like them. So when the car stopped at the corner light she jumped out, leaving her mother screaming her name and all that food spilling as she ran back to her grandmother’s house.