The Canyon

Scenes from the Scott Homes -- the mamas, the kids, the babies, the fight for dignity, the pall of despair

By Steven Almond
Breathing deeply the minted smoke of a stove-lit Kool, Ruby stared out at the tree in her front yard, a massive ficus with limbs that grew out instead of up and littered leaves the shape of pursed lips onto the dirt below. Young boys were gathered there in the dark to slap one another and roll dice, to await the call of criminal prosperity.

When Ruby first moved into the James E. Scott Homes two years ago, she shooed those boys away. She was mean enough then, and not yet disabled by despair. She didn't bother any more, mostly because the turnover was too fast. She was also somewhat indebted to the tree -- kids or no -- because the tree was what made Ruby's place identifiable, and that is no small thing in Scott, whose homes are practically identical and stretch for blocks and are not called homes anyway, but units.

On this autumn night, Doris and Tammy had come over for a game of spades. Settled onto folding chairs around a battered card table, they were carbon copies in their obesity, except that Tammy had been beautiful once, whereas Doris never was, even before her chin sprouted whiskers. The Kool fell to Ruby's side, dangling from her fingers, just above the curls of little Onarius, who had seen the guests slurping Pepsis and run to his grandma whimpering.

Onarius had been left to Ruby by her eldest son, who had gotten a crack addict pregnant, then gone to prison for a violent crime. Ruby's youngest, fourteen-year-old Scooter, had warrants out on him and almost never stayed at her place, but tonight he was in the next room asleep under the babbling blue light of a TV. Her two "good children" were in the cramped living room. Richie, sixteen and arrested only once, and seventeen-year-old April, an aspiring hairdresser who sat with an alarmed-looking newborn in her lap while her other child pranced about the room begging for sips of soda.

A dusty Polaroid of Ruby's younger sister lay on a nearby window sill, her tiny body floating in a white casket. When this sister died of AIDS in 1993, Ruby was left with her three children, each conceived with a different man.

Ruby hollered for Boojay, and her ten-year-old nephew appeared at the card table solemnly. Next to him was his brother, Cookie, a year younger and sometimes called "the black one" because, like the rest of the family, he was dark as a Hershey's bar while Boojay had skin the color of cafe con leche.

Ruby herself was a tall, imposing woman. Fat had rounded the boxy bones of her face, and when she got excited her underbite jutted out like a crooked drawer. She spoke in a cancerous growl, the words flapping past an upper gum absent of teeth. "Did you sass yo' teacher today?"

Boojay shook his head.
Ruby slipped off her rubber-soled slipper. They were in the kitchen now, which smelled of seasoning salt and grease left to sit.

"How come you lie to me? I talked to her on the phone."
Boojay said nothing. He listened to the sound of the beating, cried without seeming to care. He had a lazy eye and problems with words, and, unlike Cookie, he no longer smiled easily. When Ruby was done, both boys ran to join their sister, Angel, who was thirteen and starting to grow breasts. Ruby kept her upstairs, when she could.

Outside, distant sirens bled over hip-hop drums and distinct pops that could have been gunfire but were probably firecrackers. A train shuddered past on the track a block away, sending the roaches into a brief panic, and the women around the table leaned unconsciously toward the fan positioned in the kitchen doorway, because in Scott there is no air conditioning, and the concrete walls store heat.

Doris was cackling for the game to begin.
Ruby sat and took her cards. "What trump is?" she asked.
"Spades," Tammy said. "We playin' spades."

April's daughter approached Doris, beaded cornrows clacking, and flashed the shrewd smile of a spoiled child. "Look at this little beggar girl," Doris mocked, handing her the Pepsi bottle. Onarius, diaper drooping, wailed.

"Gimme some soda," Ruby barked. "Onarius been sick. He need somethin' to drink, too." She grabbed a bottle from April, swigged it herself, and pulled Onarius onto her lap. The boy smiled as the sugary drink filled his mouth, then threw up.

"That ain't nothin' but bein' a mama," Ruby said, wiping the vomit with the hem of her blouse. "Angel, come and take Onarius."

The game moved like this, in starts, until a few hours had passed, and each mama walked home to tend to her own crises. Well after midnight, Ruby climbed upstairs, and Scooter, her baby, emerged from his lair. The gold letters of his Notre Dame sweatshirt bright against the dark, he slipped outside lazily, passing the picture of his dead auntie on the windowsill and stealing past the tree while his mama slept upstairs with Onarius, sick Onarius, sprawled on her belly.

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