The Canyon

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

Sherwood sent Moses off to buy him soda and lemon cookies. One of Tammy's neighbors, a Latin kid, walked up carrying a ridiculously large boombox, and the blunt was passed to him. An older woman followed, shrieking Spanish at him until it was clear he had no intention of acknowledging her.

There were a number of jokes about Krystal's boobs, and she eventually threatened to slap Sherwood in the face with one of them. "I plan on losing all this," she announced through mouthfuls of Hamburger Helper. She patted her tummy. And when her child began crying again, Krystal snapped, "That damn girl greedy." Krystal threw a noodle toward the girl, who had a dainty, well-shaped nose like a baby doll's. Her face, sticky with Popsicle juice, was attracting bugs.

Now it was Doris's turn to dispatch Moses. Returning with chips and soda, he made a great show of what he'd got but stepped too close to the table and Sherwood grabbed a bag. Moses let out a yelp of protest and watched helplessly as the bag was passed around, until it finally reached Doris. Sensing an alliance, Moses made a stab for the chips and Doris reared back on her huge buttocks.

"What you tryin' to do, you little muthafucka? Who you think bought these, fool?" The comment was the cause of much laughter -- Doris's purpose in making it -- and Moses went off to sulk on the curb.

A few minutes later the door of a nearby apartment was flung open with a crash and a little girl came skittering out, followed by a woman whose age made it clear she was the child's grandma. The woman was yelling curses and threats, and the girl was backing up, crying, trying to mollify the figure above her, who was as stringily muscled as a greyhound. The girl, maybe eight years old, was cornered. Grandma swung down her arm, and with it the delayed heft of a handbag. The girl tried to block the blow, hoisting a little notebook decorated with a blue kitty. But she was too late; the purse and fist went crashing upside her small head, sent her tumbling to the ground near the concrete of her back porch.

Rather than backing up, the grandma stood over the child glowering. She looked for a moment like that famous photo of Muhammad Ali yelling at a felled Sonny Liston to get up and fight. The girl crept to her feet and cringed, trying not to run away outright but to stay out of range.

There was a brief silence around the card table. Then Sue, who routinely threatened to beat her daughter, the daughter now pregnant with child number two, shrugged. "Glad she ain't my mama."

From his place on the curb, Moses nodded, and Tammy's youngest boys whooped at the excitement. Sherwood slapped down the ace of clubs.

It was nearly June and Julius was out by the tree with the one kid who would hang out with him, Boojay, when one of the packs of little bullies that constantly roam Scott passed by. Julius caught them out of the corner of his hooded eyes but dodged the punch too late.

"What you do that for, dog?" he asked, and turned to run.
As his mama told others, Julius had something wrong in his brain that caused him to speak in spasms, like the broken hose out back of Ruby's. He also laughed maniacally when he grew too excited.

When he got punched, which was a lot, Julius's face took on a puzzled expression, as if he had fallen from some great distance, past nets and through cracks, and somehow had landed here, in Scott. He would look around and harden himself into a killer. But a few seconds later he would forget what happened, or seem to, and the smile snapped back onto his face. Such was the nature of his brain defect.

Sometimes he would leap to hug those around him, wrapping them in his spindly limbs, but he was gradually learning to avoid this dangerous practice.

The Fourth
On July 4, the crooked pavement lots of Scott filled with the cars of better-off relatives back to visit, to stand and sweat and shudder at the boom of cherry bombs, the bullet snap of Chinese firecrackers, to breathe the sweet smoke of beer and mojo criollo splashed over pork ribs, to gobble macaroni and cheese and peach cobbler made with Bisquik, to check gold watches and beepers and slap the greasy palms of Independence. On this day, Doris rolled away on a clean white stretcher, breathing in puffs, nodding silently at the proximity of death.

It was ridiculously hot, near a hundred, and beer was being drunk in hasty quarts. Ruby had been drinking some and now she was crowing about her own efficiency, having cooked through the night: two aluminum pans full of molasses barbecue, a blue towel guarding them from flies; rice and beans; potato salad; and collard greens left to boil down and gather the taste of smoked pigs' tails. From her couch, Ruby could hear the commotion approaching, but she sat still, her lips clamped around a Kool.

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