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.
There were times in Jacqui's tidy living room when it seemed the shared indignity of all their lives might be shouldered together, that the Christian rhetoric drilled at them during long-ago sermons might actually stick. Jacqui Colyer was that juiced. She was a tall woman, even taller than Ruby, and she held a powerful position: chief of Resident Services for all of Dade County HUD.
As a child Jacqui had lived in Scott Homes for three years, until her family saved enough money to move out. Her father had known James E. Scott himself, the army captain for whom Dade's second-largest project, constructed astride NW 22nd Avenue between 67th and 74th streets, was named. Scott was a stern man who ruled Dade's first project, Liberty Square, with an iron fist. His response to residents who refused to respect the rules was simple: He removed the front door from their unit.
Jacqui knew the purpose of public housing was to help the poor hoist themselves into the middle class. But when she visited Scott's jumble of 750 one- and two-story units, she saw a vast colony of dependence, drug boys marching off to prison, teenage girls raising children on government handouts, the older mamas tracing the indolent circles of kept lives. Of Scott's 3000 inhabitants, half were children. Most residents referred to the project by name. But some had a nickname for their Liberty City home. They called it The Canyon.
In April 1994, Jacqui moved with her husband and child from a lakefront home to Scott because she wanted to understand what had gone wrong, and how it might be made right.
Here is what she noticed: Most of the social programs in Scott were aimed at kids. Former football star Charles Jackson, for instance, ran a program limited to those ten and younger, his belief being that anyone older was pretty much a lost cause. To Jacqui it was obvious the mamas were the key. In a community of transience, they were the constant, the only possible source of authority.
So she began inviting them over to talk. Doris was a regular, and Tammy. And Sue, always threatening to brain her daughter, Bettina, a twenty-year-old who still sucked her thumb and was so pregnant she looked as if she had swallowed a beach ball. For a few hours each Thursday, the women vented the resentments that crowded their lives, and Jacqui would urge them, over and over, to treat one another with dignity, hoping dignity might trickle down.
The women admired Jacqui, respected her guts, praised her advice, and brought her plates of pigeon peas and rice. After each meeting, they returned home to their penny-ante feuds and dirty floors and for a few minutes rose above them, while Jacqui entertained the notion that her program made a difference and might be carried on after she left. She had dreamed of staying a year in Scott, but was gone by early June.
Tammy sucked at a chicken wing and wiped her hands on a napkin and announced she was going to Georgia. "They got some green hills up there, some country roads," she said, smacking her lips.
From inside her unit came a series of crashes and the sound of a child crying.
"Mikey!" she bellowed. "What you doin' in there?" There was an abrupt silence. Doris, who was over for the afternoon, started laughing.
Tammy had six children, all boys, aged four to twenty. All were thickly built like her and had perfectly round faces. The two eldest, Sherman and Sherwood, had just gotten up, and every few minutes they padded out to the porch to make their presence known and to watch the young girls pass by. "I'm glad my lady up in Lauderdale," observed Sherman, whose lady was pregnant. "'Cause I can get me some here."
Both he and Sherwood had lengthy records. Their most recent arrests, for armed robbery, had spurred HUD officials to seek Tammy's eviction. So Georgia it is, she said, and her gold teeth glinted in the sun.
The first gold tooth had been given to Tammy by her mama, and it was carved with the initials of the man who gave her six boys and her second gold tooth. He had been 35 when he became intimate with Tammy, who was 14 at the time. Tammy knew he had other children because they came around her place, but she didn't know for sure he was married until he died three years ago and she saw his death certificate.
"He spent time with all them," Tammy said. "I feel sorry for the ones round here that don't know they daddy. But all my boys know they daddy. Little Chedrick may have a little doubt, but the others know. He took care of his children. All them get Social Security."
Indeed, compared to her neighbors, Tammy was a wealthy lady. She received nearly $1200 per month from various programs. Her rent was the public-housing standard: 30 percent of her adjusted income. But because she had so many dependents, none of whom worked (officially anyway), the bill for her four-bedroom unit came to about $200 per month.
"I need to save me some money," she told Doris. "For the move."
Doris lived two units down. She received no Social Security, only food stamps and Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Her apartment was empty of furniture, and she didn't have a phone. Her electricity and hot water were on and off, which meant that her twelve-year-old, Moses, didn't bathe as much as he should, which had helped contribute to problems in school. Moses's older brother had given up on school. He slept through the scorch of the day and went out at night. Her only daughter had attached herself to one of Doris's sisters a few years ago and left Scott.
Doris had a wandering eye and bubble lips and spoke in a kind of foul-tempered gurgle, as if her cheeks were stuffed with sourballs. She suffered from what she majestically referred to as "pressure," meaning high blood pressure, which did not stop her from smoking or inhaling a steady stream of junk food. Her thoughts and actions were marked by a jealousy directly related to her lack of money.
"How you supposed to save when they don't give you shit?" she said.
Tammy's portable rang, and after a while she took it from her lap.
"Who this is?" she demanded. "Mikey, come get this phone!"
Her fourteen-year-old came clunking down the stairs. Three small figures hovered behind him.
According to Tammy, her three youngest children were hyperactive, and she dealt with this by keeping them upstairs with Mikey assigned to watch them. For weeks Jacqui, who lived directly across from Tammy, didn't know these boys existed, until one day Mikey fell asleep and they sneaked downstairs and over to her place, where they knocked over everything within reach.
Now they were cautiously descending, their feet whispering on the dull linoleum. Tammy squinted through the screen. "You don't think I see you?"
The boys stumbled back upstairs to watch TV and to play a video game called Mortal Kombat, in which the winner of a street fight gets to tear the loser's heart out.
"It ain't fair that HUD punish parents for what they kids do," Tammy said. "It's not like we out there encouragin' them. I been out to that corner where Sherwood stand at, and I told him, 'What you doin' here? You know they sellin' drugs out here.' But I got four little kids to raise. I can't have HUD treatin' me like no kid."
Tammy chewed on her wing dreamily. "Georgia," she said. "Georgia."
Democracy, Part 1
On the day Metro Commissioner James Burke visited Scott, a fleet of folding chairs materialized on the scarred asphalt outside Ruby's door. Workers dispatched by county HUD were on hand to damage-control the event, to translate the native grief into manageable complaints, which could be nodded at, and talked around, and otherwise dispensed.
Presently a clutch of handlers arrived, yapping into cell phones. Shielded from an inhospitable sun, the residents watched from porches. A few plopped onto seats, mamas mostly, slapping their clutchy children silent and waiting to see what would happen. Tammy was there, grinning under new cornrows, and Doris.
Burke appeared, not in a suit as might have been expected, but a guayabera. A thick man with a salesman's smile and large sunglasses, he expressed himself in doubtful gusts while the residents arched their eyebrows and struggled to undo the painful knots of his rhetoric.
"We all are out here, here in Scott, to sort of discuss some of the issues and so forth that for you people as living come up in a certain context of concern for you and your children, and all of us, here in Scott."
The primary issue, for the residents, anyway, concerned the fences around their front yards, which county HUD wanted to remove in an effort to inspire a sense of community, and which the residents wanted to retain, in an effort to protect their property. This was a matter over which Burke held little to no sway.
He was more interested in discussing the teenage curfew law he had sponsored to much public hurrah, a measure to keep youngsters -- the men-children of Scott, basically -- from roaming the streets in search of tourists: That one most famous corpse, the innocent German mother, had been struck down a dozen blocks from where Burke now stood, hands clasped upon his paunch.
The assembled mamas, janitors of the violent young, fighting handguns with slaps to the head, said little, said nothing. Until rose from her seat one young mama with two babies and thighs spilling from her shorts. She clutched a piece of binder paper penciled with loopy letters, wrinkled by re-examination and the errant belief in democracy, and rehearsed at home in front of a fallen mirror in the hallway.
"We are all here and we want to have our own homes and feel like we ourselves has some dignity." She read on in awkward flourishes, like a stage-frightened actress. Burke, sensing a revisitation of the fence issue, thumped his belly impatiently, until one of his aides interrupted and a cellular phone rang and the meeting fell in upon itself, the young mama staring at her toes while those on their porches laughed gently.
Ruby, framed by the doorway, Onarius drooling at her feet, shook her head at what the young mama did not know about appearances and politics and the play-acting of constituency:
Burke was up for re-election.
Cookie and Boojay and their friend Moses stood in front of the Dumpster across from Ruby's place. There were four of them scattered across the green metal, perfectly round and flared inward like the beginning of a funnel.
From time to time a fly would crawl into or out of one.
"Hoo-boy, some boys came round here and shot that shit up," said Richie from his place on the porch. "Was some girl that set some boy up to be kilt. So these niggers come by all shooting up and everybody dove behind the Dumpster." Hearing no one object, Richie cracked a gap-tooth smile.
"One over there," Moses said. He pointed to the door of a unit directly beyond the Dumpster, and the boys headed over. They peered respectfully at the hole in the middle of the door, which was orange and metal.
An old woman appeared at the window. She was in a bathrobe and smelled of liniment. "Sounded like someone was gonna bust the door down," she declared. "That bullet could have put a hole in me."
Back at the Dumpster, Cookie and Boojay took turns counting the bullet holes -- "one-two-three-four" -- over and over until Moses interrupted.
"Five," he said, and pointed to the lady's door.
"Oh yeah," Boojay said. "The lady."
Waiting for Bettina
Sue was waiting for Bettina, who had been due back hours ago from the hospital with her new baby. "I ain't ready to be no grandma," Sue said. "'Specially not for no Bettina. That girl's still a child herself. And you know who's goin' to have to take care of that baby." She paused to inspect her elaborately painted fingernails and yawned.
At 40, Sue prided herself on her figure, the finest on Ruby's row and one she managed to display even in a loose-fitting bathrobe. "I just hope that fat boy shows up like he supposed to," she said, meaning the daddy. Sue had been pregnant nine times by her count and had lost seven of the babies.
From time to time a friend or relative stopped by to see if Bettina was back yet. Sue would shake her head no from her place on the couch.
It was funny, she mused, how being a grandma got you to thinking. As she sat and waited there in her darkening apartment, where she could see only outlines, she wondered, for instance, not when Bettina would get home, but if her eldest child would ever leave home.
"I left home at about sixteen and I had Bettina when I was nineteen. I was married to her daddy for a year and a half. It could have worked, I think, if he hadn't started beating me. My son's daddy wasn't something I wanted to deal with either, 'cause he hit me worse. Kept me like a prisoner, you might say. Wouldn't let me sit on the porch or nothing. He was the only one that had me scared, honestly. I didn't go to no police."
Instead Sue had started drinking and snorting cocaine. "If I didn't have money, I had friends that would supply me where I worked at. Or guys I went with. Coke made me feel good for a while, but sometimes if I snorted too much, I'd stay awake for days. Then, when I slept, I would sleep and sleep. It was a hard thing, because I wanted to keep my family together, didn't want they daddies to get custody, or HRS."
Sue finally got clean three years ago after being arrested on drug charges, but by that time her son was dealing.
"He used to bring the drugs here into the apartment and package them and go out to sell them. He dealt from my porch and it got to where I could smell the reefer in my room. I told him either him or the drugs got to go. One night he come home high and he pushed me into a table."
On that night Sue did something lots of the other mamas talked about: She went to the police and filed charges against her son.
"I wanted him to get into recovery. At the same time, I knew I had a lot to do with his problem 'cause I indulged my kids. I used to give them a little sip of beer 'cause I heard beer would get rid of worms. He work at a restaurant now. I'm not sure what he do. But he got to wear a full uniform."
It was pitch black now. Sue tapped the remote and clicked to the channel with the time in the corner. "She shoulda been home by now," she said, then picked up her keys and walked off to find a ride.
She didn't return for several hours, and when she did the report was delivered in huffs: "That boy never even showed up. So who you think has to coach Bettina? I had to stand there and look at that baby being born, and that is something gross. To watch your own child go through that."
Sue and Bettina got along a little better after the baby was born. Bettina grew up a little and stopped sucking her thumb, and Sue no longer threatened every five minutes to whup her ass. "I don't like Bettina to spank him, though," Sue said. " 'Cause she's a little heavy-handed, like she is seasoning her meat. And if that child get bruised up, HRS could take him away."
The Men from the Morgue
The high blue of dusk flared around a cumulus cloud that hung over Scott like a great white hammer. Down a concrete path a few houses past Tammy and Doris, a minivan backed onto a tiny lawn. White men in white smocks moved from van to house, IDs dangling, and heaved out a collapsible gurney, shiny like a steel insect.
"They from the morgue," said Ruby, who had come with the rest of the row to watch. The spectators were knit into murmuring walls, their feet tugged at by the vortex of raised voices, of tragedy that does not happen to you. On the front porch, a teenage girl swooned in the midst of the men from the morgue. Shoulders bouncing, backed against a waist-high statuette of Jesus, hysterically out of breath, she emptied her lungs like a drowning swimmer breaking the surface. "Grandma" was the only coherent word, which was enough.
Doris approached Ruby and circled at a distance, exercising the advantage of her wandering eye. The pair had been feuding since Ruby accused Moses of stealing a twenty-dollar bill. "Raped then kilt," Doris said.
"Lordy," Ruby answered.
"Found her this morning."
The women traded a few more words before Doris retreated toward Tammy, who was camped on the walkway.
"Her body all swole up and stinkin'," Tammy muttered. "Po-lice say it happen two, three days ago. Only two ways they could have gotten in. Broke in, or they had them a key."
The front door opened and the gurney, now freighted with an ominous shape, slipped into the waiting vehicle with a disquieting click. "Please clear the way," the driver barked, and the little kids, who were learning from their elders the protocols of death, slowly moved on.
Later, around the card table on Doris's porch, darkness curling in, Tammy said, "There's no way they show her at the wake. What they do is, they got an empty casket at the funeral parlor. Then, on the way to the cemetery, they got an identical hearse with the same-style casket inside, only this one with the body, and that's when they make the switch."
For several hours the mamas stopped by to gossip about the body while the young boys practiced jumping one another and the small-timers headed off to NW Fifteenth Avenue to sell for the players thumping past in their gold-trimmed cars.
"We ain't ever had no shit around here like that," observed Sue, who was dressed in a tight denim dress, her lips painted for an evening out. "No rapin' and killin' in they own house."
"That's a damn shame about her casket," Tammy offered. She sounded distracted, almost dreamy, and she kept returning to the subject of this death, turning it gingerly in her pudgy hands.
"I'm trying to figure out how this could happen," she said. And: "I told them people, I hadn't seen her in no three days."
And: "I gotta get the hell outta here. Goin' to Georgia. That's my summation."
The card game broke late and Sue headed off to her nightclub, stopping on her way to address Ruby in the middle of the street.
"You heard about all that?"
"Yeah," Ruby said.
"She was a nice old lady. Ninety-eight years old, or whatever, 65. There was flies all on her and shit."
Ruby lowered her chin and Sue swished off, leaving others to ruminate about the crime, leaving the myth to swell and bloat and stink, until word arrived a few days later that she was simply an old lady who passed in the night and was forgotten for days.
Democracy, Part 2
Some weeks after James Burke's visit, a genuine political uprising rippled through Scott. It involved the Tenant Council presidency.
The position was largely titular. But it did involve a small budget, and, beyond that, the illusion of progress, of autonomy. The rules called for a re-election every two years. The incumbent was a stubborn woman named Annie Love, and no one, herself included, could remember exactly the last time she'd run for re-election. At Jacqui Colyer's order, an election was slated for October. A woman named Dorothy Perry agreed to challenge Love. Tammy and Ruby ran unopposed for vice president and treasurer, respectively.
"We done gonna win this election," Ruby said on the third and final day of voting. She sat in her decrepit Mitsubishi, the car she had used to ferry dozens of voters to the polls, a distance of no more than five blocks. Tammy was alongside her. Both women were giggly and bloodshot. "We been sipping on beers," Ruby explained. She whooped as the car weaved passed Annie Love's unit, and Tammy laughed and laughed.
Word came the following morning. Of the 1000-plus eligible voters, 65 had endorsed Dorothy Perry, to just 22 for Annie Love. The new president trumpeted a new era. Annie Love, the Wicked Witch of the West, was dead. Ruby, the incoming treasurer, woke up with a splitting headache.
April had just come home from an outing with her boyfriend, Trey, and had brought a bag full of little designer outfits for her two-year-old daughter, Shaquietta. "We was going all over town to find these," she told her mother, drawing out a pair of mini Fila sandals.
"How come you didn't get nothing for Onarius?" Ruby snapped. "Whenever I go shopping, I get your babies something." She glared at her daughter, but April would not return the look and walked inside.
There was no arguing about the inequality, though. Shaquietta was the crown princess of Ruby's unit. She cried often and easily, and pronounced her name so that it nearly rhymed with one of her favorite expressions, which was "Gimme-a-qwahter."
Droopy-eyed and rubber-lipped, rarely dressed in anything more than a diaper, Onarius played court jester. Because his head was a bit large for his body, when he first started walking he would stumble after himself and sometimes fall forward.
"That one bowlegged little nigger," Trey said.
In defense of her grandson Ruby would respond, "Onarius a junkie baby," thereby reducing him from a who to a what.
As an intellect, a sack of genes, Onarius was no different from the other babies in Ruby's house. But the legacy of his birth -- a daddy in jail, a mama on drugs -- left him loosely attended. He had no one to scold him for violations of social mores, which meant, for instance, that when he picked at his butt or played with his wee-wee the others would tease him and laugh, which he understood to be good. Jacqui Colyer was forever urging Ruby to take Onarius to preschool every day. He rarely made it more than three times a week.
Once Onarius's mama appeared at Ruby's door. Too spooked to step inside, she left her son a Styrofoam box of French fries. He didn't recognize her, just grinned his gummy grin and began squishing the fries into his mouth while she melted away and the others clucked derisively.
Onarius loved Ruby. He would lie on her for hours and called her "mama" -- at eighteen months, his first coherent word.
He also loved Richie, who would play with him sometimes, holding up his hands for the toddler to smash at. Whenever candies were distributed, Richie made sure Onarius was given some, though he didn't bother to unwrap them or to teach him that unwrapping was part of the process, so that Onarius inevitably stuck them in his mouth and chewed through the paper.
"That nigger ain't dumb," Richie would say. "Onarius know what up." Hearing his name, Onarius would look up, colored paper tattooed to his cheeks, a purple thread of spit dangling onto his Buddha belly, and smile at his uncle with a forgiveness that was frightening.
"Ruby sick," said Cookie, and Boojay nodded. They were on the front walk, trying to keep Onarius from spooning dirt into his mouth.
"She upstairs," April said. "She sleepin'. All she do."
This was early January, a day washed by the indolent breezes of Miami winter. Ruby was fresh from a stint at the hospital, where she'd spent a few weeks. Her mind gummed with antidepressants, she had wandered home to lie in the shell of her body, to get some rest.
Ruby had tried to kill herself once, maybe twice, with pills, and when the black veil fell again, the doctors gave her. . . more pills. She kept the bottles in a plastic bag upstairs, beside her bed. When she wasn't napping, she was downstairs with Onarius or stumbling around outside staring at the Dumpster, the tree, the train tracks. There was food on her face long after she had eaten. Her hair stood on end, as if startled.
"Brin muh medsin!" she would yell sometimes from downstairs, and one of the boys would pad up then down, the plastic bag rattling. Her voice still carried, but she had trouble edging words around her tongue, which lay numbly in her mouth. Ruby was vaguely aware that the drugs had put her in another place, and for a time she seemed content there, outside Scott.
So the yoke of management slipped from her and settled uneasily onto April, who now prevailed over the kitchen and uncertainly directed the daily battle against entropy. She did not hit the boys, as Ruby would, did not provide counsel to her neighbors or rail against the larger demons, as Ruby did. Nonetheless, the house became hers.
On Ruby's 40th birthday, April hurried from meat market to grocery, readying imitation crab and yellow rice, arranging for the pickup of the cake, her ass rippling with industry, while Ruby sat on the couch gurgling at Onarius. The children looked upon her with curiosity, then concern, then unconcern. She was a part of everything else, and like everything else, she had broken.
The condition carried into March. There were discussions as to the proper solution. Eventually the doctor was consulted again, the dosage tinkered with, to little benefit.
Who can say why the mood lifted, what force jolted Ruby out of the fog and back into herself? Maybe she got tired of her diminished role. Maybe she got tired of the dope.
By spring her eyes had cleared and she was fit enough to take up again the long-standing feuds against other mamas. "Them drugs really mess you up," she observed whenever anyone brought up her absence.
Cookie and Angel Argue About When It Was They Mama Died
Cookie and Boojay and Angel were riding south along the Palmetto, playing a game called That My Car when Boojay realized something.
"I gone this way before," he said. "Down to visit my daddy in jail." Outside, the refurbished homes of South Dade slid past.
"Me too," Cookie said. "I went with Mama."
"Nuh-uh," said Angel. "Mama dead already."
"Was not. She die last year."
"She die in 1992."
"You wrong," Angel said. "Aks Ruby."
"She die last year," Cookie said, his face flushed. "And she went up to the sky." He turned to his brother, who had come from the very same mama. But Boojay was looking away, his lazy eye fixed on something beyond the window.
"That my car," Boojay whispered, watching a Range Rover pass on the right and disappear.
The way Richie told the story, he and Trey were walking down NW 111th Street at about two in the morning. Richie's moped had broken down.
"Some niggers come by, young boys, they say, 'You want some weed?' We said, 'No, we straight.' Then they said, 'Whyn't you come here?' They was about five guys, and they start shootin'. I could hear the bullets goin' past my ear and Trey got hit in the neck and it came out by his eye." Richie paused to trace the path of the bullet, a fingernail dragging over his skin. "Trey face got shot! Fractured his jaw, boy, and that blood was pourin' out. I gave him my shirt but he didn't wanna go to the hospital at first, so we came back here and started bangin' on the door. Then we just waited downstairs till the ambulance come."
Trey's face remained swollen for weeks, his gold-toothed scowl lost in lumpy cheeks. He stuck close to the house during his recovery, helping out April, but he never spoke about what had happened. As the swelling went down, his face reassumed its angular menace and he spent more time outside, lording over the boys at the tree, then disappearing for hours. He had money, somehow, and sometimes red eyes.
Dressed in their floppy jeans and new sneakers, his friends circled Angel, waiting, only waiting.
A few blocks from Ruby's row, across the railroad tracks and the whizzing smog of NW 22nd Avenue, in a unit that replicates all of Scott's -- walls spidery with cracks, doors scarred, floor littered with grimy baby toys -- a girl about April's age, a vague acquaintance, stood behind the screen and quietly declined to come outside.
"My friend got shot," she explained. "Well, not my friend. Her friend." She shrugged toward a petite, shadowed figure whose belly looked ready to burst. The man shot was this girl's boyfriend, the father of her one-year-old and of the baby in her tummy. He'd had some kind of tangle with the cops and bullets had hit him everywhere. "One in the back of the head," she noted.
Rather than going out, for the next half-hour she and a few friends sat and discussed quietly, languorously, with the grace of predators, what they would wear to the wake, how they would fix their hair.
Sherwood had him some reefer, and he sent Moses off to buy a 50-cent cigar so he could roll a blunt. Tammy's second-eldest son was sitting at a low table in the parking space outside his mama's. His younger brothers, imprisoned upstairs, would issue an occasional yip or raise up on tiptoe so as to be able to survey the scene below.
The game started just after dark, spades first and when that grew too arduous, whist. Sherwood enjoyed trash talk and throwing his trumps onto the table with loud whacks, a feat made nearly impossible by the deck's condition.
Krystal, who had pendulous breasts and an infant daughter, was sucking on a Popsicle while her little girl watched the game from a stroller and moaned with hunger. "Little bitch drive me crazy," Krystal said. She stuffed the Popsicle in her child's mouth.
"Bettina pregnant again," Sue said.
"Who the daddy?" Sherwood asked.
"That same fat boy," Sue murmured. "She expectin' in October. No way I'm watchin' this one get born."
The game adjourned briefly when Moses returned, and Sherwood casually pulled apart the cigar and poured out the tobacco and filled the brown leaf with herb from a little Zip-lock bag. He rolled the blunt tight on the draw end and loose on the other, then reluctantly passed it around.
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.
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.
"Bitch, I kill your fuckin' ass!" shouted a young man in a Chicago Bulls jersey. He was rambling after one of the neighborhood mamas, who was hurrying toward Ruby's place. Through the door she scurried, and the man, though drunk, stepped down at the doorway, his eyes slitted.
"I'm gonna bring the po-lice," cried the woman, clutching Ruby's phone.
"Go head," the man said. "I kill they asses, too."
Ruby hobbled outside, landing heavily on a porch chair. She rubbed at her left foot, which was bloated and dirt-caked. "Ain't goin' to no doctor," she declared. "Got a job now, workin' at the summer camp. Not gonna have no doctor messin' with that."
Tammy, who was now feuding with Ruby, had bought ribs, too (eight slabs for $40 from the meat market), which she now tended on her porch, dousing the coals with water and shrieking orders variously at her children and a quiet young man who looked to be the age of her eldest son but was in fact her boyfriend.
Around the corner the Jamaicans were beating on instruments, as they did at the least provocation, and down the row someone had set up a green-and-white striped tent, under which a crowd gathered to watch a quartet playing spades. Moses, having spent the morning throwing firecrackers at other children's feet, disappeared to a cousin's house.
After a day of incarceration upstairs, Tammy's three youngest -- Chuck the dim, Charles the talker, and Chedrick, the youngest -- were freed. As a treat, Tammy moved the grill and blasted the porch with a hose, letting her children run and jump and slide on the wet concrete. "They'd just break a slip-and-slide," she explained. She lashed out at her boys without pause -- at Chuck for sliding too gleefully on his gelatinous belly, at Charles for tripping Ched -- and beckoned them close enough to whack with one of her slippers. The guilty party would invariably start chanting, "Awight, Mama" (they all had lisps), and Tammy would hit them anyhow, then exile them to the corner to cry, so that the casual observer might mistake the infliction of pain and humiliation to be an aspect of the game.
Amid all this, Tammy missed the scene unfolding behind her, the appearance of the fire-rescue truck, the hurried movements of paramedics around Doris, heaped on a chair in a green housedress, breathing unsteadily, her holiday wig gone, sweat trickling from her tufts of hair and feeding the rivulets on her cheeks.
"No way she can stay with that pressure," one of the men said, dispatching a colleague to fetch the gurney.
Robbed of her bluster, Doris sat with her head inclined, as if listening to a frequency inaudible to the others. She was strangely inert, ginger to the touch, half gone. All around, her neighbors were flirting with the paramedics, pushing their young breasts forward, asking about the "Heimlick manure." The black paramedic asked his partners if they were scared, this being Scott, and laughed unconvincingly.
Along the row, beyond Tammy and her bouncing boys, children jabbed the air with sparklers, waiting for night. A few gathered to watch as Doris disappeared into the cool darkness of the lime-green truck. The rescue vehicle crawled off, its siren a puppy yelp through the sulfuric haze of fireworks.
Democracy, Part 3
There was singing nearby, the soft sound of teenage altos. Dorothy Perry sat at her kitchen table waving at flies. Leftover barbecue sat congealing on the counter. The girls in the next room, Perry's charges, were rehearsing for an upcoming fundraiser, sitting four to a couch, learning a song from a movie starring Whoopi Goldberg. Perry was eager to discuss the upcoming fundraiser. She was somewhat less inclined to discuss her presidency of the Tenant Council.
After her election, Perry had promised a resident-driven regime, one that would plan activities and programs by and for the people. "We're taking our message from the outhouse to the White House," she had said.
The words sounded good, sloganlike, because Perry knew the art of rhetoric. A high school dropout and teenage mother, she had long promoted herself as Scott's designated inspiration. Out of her apartment a few blocks from Ruby's row, Perry ran a loosely organized antidrug ministry and took in stray children. The walls of her living room were crowded with plaques. Her scrapbook spoke of famous visitors and free trips to far-off places. George Bush had named her one of his 1000 Points of Light.
But Perry seemed flummoxed by her presidency, unable or unwilling to attach herself to the role. The promised meeting of residents never materialized. Her officers, Ruby and Tammy, ceaselessly feuded. Within a few months, Perry's hopeful sound bites had curdled into complaints.
"You know what these residents tell me? They say, 'Ms. Perry, they oughta hang a sign out front of Scott saying Dade County Jail, cuz that's just what they think this place is. A jail.'"
Two small children came toddling into the kitchen hoping for something to drink. "This one," Perry said, grabbing the boy. "He was born hemorrhaging from his brain. I take in these children and try to give them a good home." She looked pleased, mostly with herself. "We could sure use some publicity for our fundraiser."
As to the Tenant Council, she was noncommittal. "Sometimes I've got a mind to just resign," she said. "My council just can't work together, and HUD ain't helping neither."
Before long Ruby was limping around Scott on her swollen foot, circulating a petition calling for Tammy and Perry to be removed from office. Both did so in June, with few regrets. Ruby spoke of running for president herself or recruiting Miss Annie Love. "She wasn't half as bad as people say," Ruby said.
A week after the Fourth, Moses went to visit his mother at North Shore Medical Center, along with his friends Cookie, Boojay, and Angel.
"I been here," said Angel, moving through the sliding glass doors into the cool, clean lobby. "I been here and to Cedars and to Jackson."
"I been to Cedars, too," Moses said. "Cedars got more floors."
"Jackson," Cookie said. "Jackson the biggest."
At the front desk, Moses spoke to the candy striper softly, shyly, in a patois that twice forced her to ask him who he was visiting.
"I been all over this place," Angel said, standing in front of the elevator. "This where my mama stay before she came home to die." Cookie and Boojay were long gone, tagging after Moses, who had sprinted off to find another elevator.
The exact nature of Doris's condition had been described by her friends and neighbors as "bleedin' in her head," by which they meant that she had nearly suffered a stroke. Seated at a small table beside an adjustable bed, the foil remains of Hershey's chocolate kisses strewn before her, Doris looked unimpressed. She unwrapped another kiss and daintily popped it into her mouth, pushing aside a mug of iced tea and a small salad still wrapped in plastic, her intended lunch. A TV set suspended above her blared a sitcom.
"Where my money?" Doris said. Moses produced two scrunched twenties, which Doris snatched, the plastic tubing for her IV whipping furiously. She unfolded the bills and straightened them, then folded them again and placed them under her portable phone, while the children watched in a three-card-monte spell. "Get me two sodas," Doris said.
Moses ran off with a twenty in his fist. The room was air-conditioned and the floor was shiny. "I keep the television on all through the night," Doris said, giggling. "She don't bother me none." Across the room lay an old woman with a sign above her bed that read, "Seizure warning." Her chin rose just above the covers, dark and gnarled as petrified wood.
Moses reappeared with two Styrofoam cups and a napkin, which he held to his lip. "What the fuck this is?" Doris said. "I wanted it in a can. This shit's all watered down."
"Tha's the way they do it," Moses answered.
"Muthafuckers try to keep me from getting any sugar, but you know I'm gonna find a way," Doris said. "Where my change?"
Moses dabbed at his mouth again, this time with the collar of his grubby Miami Heat shirt because the napkin had bled through. "What happened to you?" Doris said, counting her change and lining up her sodas in front of her.
What happened was that Moses's older brother had socked him in the mouth before Moses left the house, putting a hole through the bottom of his lip and leaving a purple bruise on his chin.
"I'm gonna get my brother to make that boy suffah," Doris said, a proclamation that seemed to lift her spirits.
Again she reached for her money, straightened it, handed Moses a five. "Gotta save some of this. I still need to get you school clothes." Moses, who had flunked the seventh grade, nodded disbelievingly.
Cookie and Angel and Boojay were busy playing with the remote control. They zapped the screen and the room fell silent, save for the gentle bubbling of a machine next to the bed. "That's for oxygen," Doris said. "That shit tickles my nose."
Moses wadded up his bloodied napkin and threw it toward the wastebasket. He nodded to the others that it was time to go, and they bolted from the room, spilling into the elevator and gobbling the candies Moses had bought while fetching soda for his mother.
Doris did not say when she would be back. And Moses did not ask.
All around her, children were laughing, darting across a giant lawn, munching on hot dogs and cotton candy. Ruby was crying, the drops falling off her cheeks and disappearing into the green of grass.
"They say I almost got two kids drownded," Ruby said. "They say I let 'em wander off from the camp. But they was too many for me to watch. And then that lady who direct the camp, she start screamin' and cussin' me. She ain't got no right to do that, has she?"
Ruby sat at the edge of Gwen Cherry Park, the huge open space a few blocks from her house. Julius was seated beside her giggling at nothing, drawn by the sudden flare of Ruby's imbalance perhaps, or by the simple fact that he was less likely to get punched in her proximity. Nearly all the children of the Scott Homes were out to enjoy the free food and rides offered by the private management company the county had paid to oversee Scott.
"The police came last night to get Scooter," Ruby said. "They said they had another warrant out on him. But he wasn't there."
A hundred yards away, she could see her nephews tussling and her niece, Angel, flirting with some older boys, moving to the hip-hop. "They all mad at me for lettin' those children walk away," Ruby grumbled. "But it wasn't nothing but a few hundred feet away, that canal. A hundred feet."
Ruby stamped out her Kool and sent Julius off to light another. "They ain't gonna fire me anyway," she said. "'Cause I talked to the man in charge myself. And if I's made president of the Tenant Council, which I might run, then we see what happens."
She drew hard on her cigarette but something in her seemed to deflate. "I'm gettin' tired again, that's the truth. Maybe I ain't gonna do that job no more. 'Cause I might end up back in the hospital."
Ruby could remember the time before she went to the hospital, and it seemed to her sometimes like a different life. Jacqui was around then, and Tammy and Doris and the rest treated her with respect. She ran her household, and there wasn't any question about it.
"I picked up those kids for camp every day, even with my foot all swole up," Ruby said. "Hell, I walked them over this morning."
Out on the green grass, the party was winding down and Ruby was ready to walk her kids home. She picked herself up and called out to the ones she could find. "We goin' home," she said, kneeling, and Onarius clambered onto her chest. Together they walked through the park and across the avenue.
Scott was empty, a ghost town, and as she limped back to her unit, past the unmovable tree in her front yard -- a tree the county would soon hack down -- Ruby was crying again, still stunned that two children might drown so close to home.
Except when both first and last names are given, the names in this story have been changed in order to protect the identities of those involved.
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