Maroo sits in front of the television shouting to Bob Barker in a bidding war against the other contestants. During summers off from Lincoln Prep me and Maroo have our little routine: The Price Is Right over breakfast and a quick talk about dinner before her stories come on. After The Young and the Restless she rolls into the kitchen to make lunch, listening to the news on the gospel station. At noon a volunteer rings the doorbell—hands me a brown sack with a carton of milk, a slice of bread, and a meal in a three-compartment aluminum container. Maroo always tastes but rarely eats what comes in the Meals-on-Wheels. A country girl who knew her way around the kitchen by the age of ten and started cooking in Kansas City restaurants at sixteen, she usually pulls the lid off the container, tunes her face up and says, “How they expect me to eat this?”
Maroo has multiple sclerosis but she wouldn’t tell you that. All the hard stuff she heard from the doctor about not walking and eventually becoming a vegetable, well, she won’t go there. In forty words or less Maroo tells it her way: “I was leaving Pete’s Cafeteria one night. On my way to the car, my legs just gave out on me. Before I knowed anything I had a cane. Then a walker. Look up and they got me in this chair.”
I’ve been living with Maroo for ten years, since I was seven. My mother only intended to leave me with my grandmother for a little while. She and my stepfather weren’t getting along so she left him with a plan to stay with my aunt in California until she got on her feet. Before she could leave Kansas City, he won her forgiveness, again. When she told me we were going back to him, I said I wanted to stay because people didn’t fight at Maroo’s but that was only part of it. The other part was something Maroo had been telling me for years. It started when I was two or three—the little game when she would point to herself then ask me, Who am I? Only she never let me answer for myself; she always said, “I’m your root.”
A second grader can’t do much but Maroo made it seem like I was a big help. I laid clothes out for her before doctor’s appointments or church; reached for and handed things to her while she cooked; went with her on trips to the grocery store and the beauty shop, where I helped her move from the wheelchair to the seat where Ms. Hattie pressed her hair. The Share-a-Fare handicapped van never charged extra for me like they were supposed to because they liked Maroo. When I was in school, she managed on her own. On weekends we did fun things like ride the van to Blue Ridge Shopping Center where we watched movies back-to-back in the multiplex and ate chilli dogs from the Orange Julius.
Maroo made sure I did what other kids did. She took me to have my picture taken with Santa Claus and baked cakes for me to share with the class on my birthdays. If she couldn’t come to a school play or a parent-teacher conference, she made sure my uncle was there for me. Most of the time she was there. My mother was far away but I was in good hands. And it wasn’t always easy for Maroo having a little boy around the house. She never complained but somet-imes after a long day of sitting and thinking I could see she was already too tired to take on the staircase. Getting to the second floor took a lot of coordination: holding on to both rails, swinging each leg up one step at a time. I’d sit down a few steps above her and tell her about art, math, and recess. On a good night it took her half an hour to reach the landing where I’d be waiting with her walker.
In the last fifteen minutes of The Price Is Right Maroo wins a white Dodge Stratus, an entertainment center, and an Alaskan cruise before turning to me.
“Lawrence, I need you to run to the Corner Store for me and get some eggs and milk. We going to want some cornbread to go with the greens and spaghetti I’m fixing tonight. Be sure to tell Mr. Luigi hello for me.”
By Mr. Luigi she means the owner of the store, whose full name is Luigi Cesario Badaglio but people can say “Luigi” a lot better than they can say “Badaglio,” so here in Parade Park he’s Mr. Luigi. I started working for Mr. Luigi when I was fourteen. I made a trip to the Corner Store one Saturday morning because Maroo was baking something to take to church and had run out of eggs or milk or something essential. Must have been an essential because she would’ve made do if she only needed a dash or a pinch of something. So I went after the essential and found the old man unpacking canned goods. He asked me to help. I told him I would but only if he gave me five dollars. He surprised me when he dug in his pocket, gave me the money and told me I should come help him out every Saturday—“to keep out of trouble.”
From freshman year until a few months ago, when I showed him the straight A report card to squash his cracks about me not being promoted to senior year, my winter breaks and summer vacations were spent at the Corner Store. I swept the floor, stocked shelves when a shipment came in; mostly though me and Luigi sat on two crates behind the counter and talked. This was around the time I started sketching, by accident. A box carrying big tablets was shipped to the store. Luigi never got around to sending it back so I asked him if I could have one. In a week it was filled up. I drew pictures of the folks who came into the store and scenes from some of the stories Luigi told.
Luigi came from a big family. He said he felt sorry for people who didn’t have families because families gave you the best gift of all, stories. He grew up in this place called Bari that’s not too far from Greece because he could catch a ferry to take him there. He started working a lot younger than fourteen—when boys his age were sneaking into movie theaters and playing soccer. When he told me about his childhood, I understood why his face looked like it had never been young. He loved to talk about his mother, how hard she worked, how good she cooked. He liked to remember the amaretto cookies she baked for him. I told him to make some for the store. He started baking them every week. Keeps them in a big glass jar labeled Macaroons right next to the register.
Even when I didn’t have to work I went to the store to see Luigi get his kicks from watching Vanna White turn letters over.
“She’s got good legs, Lawrence. When you get a woman, make sure she’s got legs like Vanna’s.”
“Luigi, man. Why don’t you stop peeping Vanna so hard? Try to solve a puzzle once in a while. Anyway, what makes you think I don’t have a woman?”
“If her legs aren’t long like those, throw her back in and catch another one.”
Sometimes at night brothers stumbled into the store red-eyed, smelling like weed and liquor. Even when they loud-talked, stumbled all over the store, knocked down the magazine turnstile, Luigi kept his cool until they grabbed a handful of macaroons and left.
“If you ever do that to yourself—,” he would start in, shaking his head.
When the Country Mart opened on Prospect Avenue, Luigi said that since business was slow I should work there instead so I could make more and save more. He thought I was saving what I earned at his store when really I spent most of it at Carlson’s Art Supplies.
When I enter the store for the milk and eggs for Maroo’s cornbread, Luigi is pushing Italian sausages onto the spokes in the rotisserie on the counter.
“My boy! How’s Miss Helen?”
“She’s fine. She’s making spaghetti tonight. What time you coming?” I tease.
Luigi’s big stomach gyrates and a long quiet hiss—like air seeping from a tire—explodes in a long cough. I shake my head at him and head down the aisle because he knows he ought to leave those cigars alone.
“Tell your grandmother I’m still waiting on her to set the date.”
“Man, how many times do I have to tell you she’s a Baptist? She ain’t about to marry no Catholic.”
Luigi throws a chubby hand in the air and shoos me out the door.
After I give Maroo the items, I head out for work, grabbing my duffle bag from the upstairs closet.
At breaktime I sit on the rail outside the store. I’m watching a truck with its bass way too loud pull into the parking lot when from the corner of my eye I see an elderly woman fall through the door at the opposite entrance. I jump down off the rail and run to help. The bag of groceries that broke her fall lies rumpled in front of her head like a pillow. She’s reaching for the paper towels and cottage cheese; I tell her I’ll replace the cheese. When I return with a new one she thanks me.
At nine o’clock I punch out. I think about the woman who fell. That’s how it always starts. Something stays on my mind, some kind of scene, until I can draw it out of my head. I pass my bus stop and turn down Olive Street because there’s a shortcut through the backyard of an abandoned house. Crushed cans and broken beer bottles make a path to a fence. On the other side is a baseball diamond in the yard of Crispus Attucks Elementary School. I walk around the school looking for a wall big enough—without windows. At nine thirty, it’s still not dark enough so I wait.
I can see a face for a minute and it’s in my head for good. That’s how it is with the old woman from the store. I pull out two cans of Krylon gloss, Leather Brown and Mahogany. I fit a fat tip over the nozzle on the Leather Brown can for her face. I put a skinny tip on Mahogany for age lines. I unzip the compartment of the bag where I keep the metallics. Original Chrome for the tears. I switch the nozzles to the matte sprays. Maize for the little bit of teeth she showed when she half-smiled her thanks to me. Around the woman’s body I paint a giant Caution Wet Floor sign that should have been there. It’s not that slipping and falling at the store moves me so much. I see that all the time but most people ask for the manager so they can complain or get something free. She didn’t complain. At the bottom I leave my initials in the purple ink grocery stores use in their marking guns because it’s permanent. I flash my heavy-duty Coleman to look her over once more because I never return to a painting. My watch says a quarter to eleven.
I smell it the moment I open the door, even before I hear Maroo whimpering from the living room. I drop my bag and call out her name so she knows it’s me and not to worry. The smell gets worse as I walk down the hall and find the commode turned over on the carpet. Her walker is down too. The wheelchair has rolled back to the wall. Maroo’s lying on the floor with her legs twisted because she didn’t lock the wheels when she stood up.
“You all right?”
She nods yes.
I get the small bucket we keep under the kitchen counter, fill it with warm water and pour in a capful of the Skin So Soft she likes. I toss a bar of Ivory soap and a washcloth in the bucket. I take off the dirty housecoat and lay a big towel over her. I grab a nightgown from the dresser near her bed. She doesn’t look at me during the sponge bath, especially when I part her legs. This is the worse—for her and for me so I work as fast as I can putting on the diaper, the plastic panties that snap in the center and a clean gown.
Most of the accident is still on the carpet.
“Don’t rub too hard, that carpet already ain’t no count.”
I scrub until the water in the bucket turns from gray to light brown. When I get up from the floor, we are both tired.
“You want me to put you in the chair or the bed?”
“The bed. And open up the window.”
Sunday morning Maroo is always at her best because we are bound for glory, church. I wake up to the AM station—a gospel group from Wichita. It isn’t a half-bad way to start the day when I also smell coffee and bacon. Generally, I’m not half as excited as she is. I guess they mean well at Greater Witness Tabernacle. They had me believing for a long time—all of those Sundays I squeezed my eyes shut and prayed hard right along with them. I thought sooner or later my prayers and Maroo’s were bound to get through so that when the preacher put the oil on her head, helped her out of the chair and told her to walk, she would. It never worked though. Soon as he let go, Maroo fell. For a while she tried every Sunday but now it’s only a few times a year.
I’m probably not going to Heaven unless Maroo can help it. I put myself on a Jesus diet—no Jesus—to see how I could get along without him and his daddy too. I mean, look at Maroo; she’s been supporting Jesus’s career all her life and I don’t see him making things easier or better for her or nobody else I know. My aunts and cousins, all of them are always talking about what they put “in the Lord’s hands.” Sometimes it works out all right but half the time it doesn’t. Luck of the draw, I’d say. It’s definitely harder my way because there’s no get-out-of-worry free card; there’s no one to pass the buck to unless it’s my grandmother.
“You got to go downtown to Social Services for me this morning,” Maroo says, lifting herself a little to look at the sausage in the skillet. “My caseworker is missing some papers. Now, I done mailed those papers twice. She claim they never came so I want you to take them to her. Make sure you put them in her hand, you hear?”
When The Young and the Restless comes on, I’m standing at the corner of Prospect and Truman waiting on the #21 when I see Stan. From two blocks away it’s easy to spot a six-foot-two albino with a hay-colored afro. Up close, he’s got two gashes on the left side of his face where a girl cut him last summer. We were tight in elementary school but went separate ways after eighth grade: I went to Lincoln Prep; he went to vocational school for a minute—until he got expellled for trying to burn it down.
“Nigga, where you been hiding?” He sucker-punches me in the arm.
“I’m not hiding man, I’m working.”
“Nigga, where you working?” His tone is like if he’s amazed someone would hire me.
“You bagging groceries? You ain’t making no real money.” He pulls out a pack of Kools, tilts the box in my direction.
“Naw, man. Here come the bus.”
He lights a cigarette anyway, takes a long drag, and looks at me real serious. “When you ready to leave that play money alone, make you some real money, come see me. You ain’t gotta do much.”
The front tires of the bus roll up on the sidewalk near Stan. He jumps back.
“Damn. They just let anybody drive public transportation.”
The doors swing open. The driver looks at us and shakes his head. Stan stomps his cigarette out and gets on.
This is the most time I’ve spent with Stan since we got caught smoking in the bathroom in junior high. I was suspended for three days and for those three days Maroo did not speak to me. I follow him to the back of the bus because he thinks we’re friends. And it’s less trouble if he continues to think this.
“Naw. Fuck this, man. We sitting in front.”
Apparently, Stan wasn’t absent from Social Studies the time we learned about Rosa Parks. He makes a scene in her honor, uses the hand rails overhead like they’re parallel bars and he’s a gymnast. He swings himself to the front of the bus. The bus driver looks at us in the rearview mirror. A young white couple holding a camera and maps sits across from where Stan lands. The man says something in French as Stan jerks his head in the woman’s direction. She clutches her bus pass and Stan snatches it away from her. He throws the pass on the floor, raising his voice.
“Nigga, they looking like they ain’t never seen niggas before. They need to take they asses back to Germany or Ireland or wherever they came from.”
The bus driver picks up his microphone: “Young man, please take your seat.”
I don’t tell Stan when we get to my stop. At the last minute I jump up, yell behind me that I’ll see him later, and make it out just before the door closes.
I wait an hour for Maroo’s social worker to return from her half-hour lunch. After I’ve handed her the papers, I decide to check out the new Town Pavilion. There are twenty fast food joints on the entry level. I get in line at the Arthur Treacher’s, order fish and chips with hush puppies, and grab a handful of tartar sauce packets. I eat at one of the tables in the center of the Pavilion. When I look up, I see a skylight that reminds me of a kaleidoscope. I count five levels and think how excited Maroo will be when I tell her this place has five floors of shops she hasn’t seen yet. The sun is shining through the skylight, bouncing off the gold banisters.
Later that night, after my shift, I notice that two of the three streetlights by the Lucille Bluford Library are still busted out. On the back wall of the library I spray up my giant kaleidoscope. Inside the prisms, that look like the tangle of tennis bracelets worn by the girl who’d rung me up at Arthur Treacher’s, I paint the faces of black and latino kids, because that’s who lives in the neighborhood. At the top of the wall, dead center, I graf a diamond-shaped light shining on them. I’m finishing my initials when I see a flashlight on the wall that isn’t my own.
After the cops pat me down and search my bag, they ask me how old I am. Since I am seventeen they let me ride without handcuffs.
I wait for a long time in a room with blank walls and a small barred window. The deadbolt clicks, and a man comes in. He introduces himself as Mr. Velasquez and throws a folder on the table.
“I handle about eight hundred cases a year, Clarence. About half of them are good kids. They have clean records. But it’s unusual that the crimes young people commit show talent.”
He spreads eight Polaroids out on the table. It’s my first time seeing the work since I created it.
“No, I wouldn’t say talent is your problem—vandalism is. Listen, it’s my job to get a sense of where you’re at with all this, why you did it and if you’re planning to do it again. In other words, it’s my job to recommend to the court what to do with you. How long you been graffing?”
“About a year.”
“A year? You’ve been busy.”
He picks up the Polaroid of a side of the school bus I graffed last Thanksgiving.
“What made you start?”
“Paper’s not big enough.”
“Ever heard of canvas, Mister Paper’s-Not-Big-Enough? They don’t just use it to make gym shoes.”
“Canvas is expensive. Brushes are too.”
“You belong to a gang?”
“You mean do I belong to a crew?” I don’t do crew work because mostly they’re interested in throw ups and I’m beyond graffing a couple of words in two or three colors. “No. I work alone.”
“You worked alone,” he corrects me.
Mr. Velasquez asks me about my mother and father. I don’t know my father but I hate to tell him this because it’s real cliché. I tell him my parents live in another state which isn’t exactly a lie. He asks about my grades, then starts in on all this stuff about the state. He says the state can’t recycle tax dollars. “Once the money is spent, it’s spent, and when taxes have to go to repeat improvements everybody loses.” He’s writing stuff down and for the first time I start to feel nervous. What if he’s writing that I’m a delinquent? What if Maroo gets in trouble? He pauses, looks up at me, and asks, “Don’t you know it’s wrong to mess with public property?” I think about the so-called public property in my hood. In Kansas City, or any city, if you don’t have money, you live ugly. Raggedy subsidized housing. Empty houses that nobody lives in get boarded up, playgrounds and hideaways for the druggies. Broken telephone booths never get fixed. Might as well call them what they really are, port-a-potties for the homeless. Don’t get me started on the so-called parks. Chains but no seats for swings and monkey bars you better think twice before climbing unless you don’t mind falling on glass. The schools are just like the projects, nothing works right—and with that same funny smell. I mean, kids should be able to leave home and go somewhere they feel good about, right? Along I-71 and I-40 they got all these Adopt-a-Highway signs. They need to put up Adopt-A-School signs. Adopt-A-Hood because the only decent place to go in my hood is church. We got plenty of churches. Since they’re blinged out with their stained-glass windows, fancy crosses and what not, I don’t have to graf them.
“Unfortunately, Lawrence, I can’t just let you go with a fine for the damages you’ve caused. Plus, I don’t think it would be fair to make your grandmother pay, even if she could. I’m going to recommend that you spend the next ten weekends in the Sentenced to the Arts Project at the McCune Residential Facility. Since you like art so much you should spend a little time in a place where you can think about the law and art at the same time. Can your grandmother take care of herself?”
I tell him Maroo is pretty good alone for short stretches. He says she’ll need to come to the hearing because I’m a minor.
Two weeks letter, the judge accepts Mr. Velasquez’s recommendation and I get sentenced to six weekends at McCune Residential Facility. Maroo cries in the van on the trip home. When I tell her it could have been worse she shakes her head.
After the first Friday, which is real hard on Maroo, I go straight to Jackson County Family Court after school where a van takes me to McCune. Seeing her that low knowing she was already dealing with so much had me feeling like there was a lot to make up for—you know, to make good on all the work she’d put into me. From Jump Street, I can tell the dudes who are mad at the world, itching to fight for any reason; and I stay clear of them. Friday evenings I go to an anger management group then dinner and there’s an hour or so of free time in the art room. Sunday afternoon, after the critical decision-making session, the van takes us home.
Ms. Scott directs the painting workshop on Saturdays for four hours. She’s a real trip. First Saturday, she’s taking roll and calls me Archie, as in Archibald Motley. I tell her I’m Lawrence, as in Lawrence Williams. She smiles, tells me she knows exactly who I am but do I know Archibald Motley was employed by the Federal Works Progress Administration to draw black history scenes in a series of murals at Chicago schools. I ask her why ole Archibald got a better deal than me; he got paid for painting on schools and I got McCune. The next week Ms. Scott brings a book of African Artists. She has a few bookmarked for me—Elizabeth Catlett and her prints; Betye Saar and her assemblage art, some really dope dioramas if you ask me; and Kara Walker and her giant black silhouettes. I’m supposedly at one of the best high schools in the city and I’ve never heard of any of these people. I copy some of the stuff from the book for Maroo. She’s real crazy about The Judgment Day by Aaron Douglas. Tells me to put it up in the kitchen.
The night I leave McCune for the last time, Ms. Scott hands me an Artlab Program brochure with a note that says, “For you—Archie.”
Maroo is a real chatterbox the Sunday I come home to stay. Over my favorite dinner of brisket, mashed potatoes and green beans, she tells me all about the sermon I missed. Over my favorite dessert of peach cobbler she also serves up the latest family gossip. That’s when I show her the brochure from Artlab, a program for high school students interested in visual art. For one month during the summer you stay on campus at the Kansas City Art Institute and take studio classes in preparation to build a portfolio for art school applications. The cost is $1,500. Even though we don’t have that kind of money I hold onto the application because they offer scholarships. I figure it won’t hurt trying for one.
Luigi gets real excited when I tell him about Artlab. And, for the first time since McCune, he has more than a few words for me. He thinks the program will give me a taste of college and that college will make a different kind of man out of me than the streets are liable to. He asks me to come back to the store at the end of the week because he has a few odds and ends he needs me to do.
When I return there are no jobs for me. Luigi gives me a camera. It isn’t new, he says, but it’s mine if I agree to go back to the schools and take pictures of the walls I’ve graffitied. I am lucky; the walls are in good shape. I have my pictures turned into slides and send them in with my application.
When the acceptance letter from Artlab arrives in the mail, it is clipped to a scholarship award letter.
Maroo tells me the church is giving me money for materials and that we are going to celebrate—picnic style. I remind her that I’m just going up the street and she tells me I’m going much further. A lot of people from the church and a few friends from school come to the picnic. Mr. Luigi brings the potato chips, soda pop, and stuff for hot dogs and burgers. We get some barbecue from Arthur Bryant’s. Maroo makes potato salad and her famous baked beans with lots of brown sugar the way I like.
At the picnic the fellas start clowning, calling me “the artist formely known as Lawrence.” Taking a little heat for my future plans ain’t no biggy. Matter of fact I kind of expect it. Afterall, who’s rooting for them? Frank comes at me with, “What you going to do with a degree in fine arts? You ain’t doing nothing but wasting your time going to that school. You already know how to draw. You need to get on a job where you can make some money. These days a black man’s college degree is only equals to a white man’s high school diploma anyway.” Terrence bounces on the tips of his toes in brand new sneakers. He’s real eager to add his two cents. “One of my cousins go to college. When we was shorties she was always real smart, real into her books, right? She won a scholarship, right? She pre-med. Go to Columbia University in New York. That’s what you call a Ivan Lee school, right? You got to be real smart to get into them Ivan Lee schools. Man, she was walking through Harlem one night with her book bag on her shoulder, right? Whitey pulls over and asks her ‘How much?’ Man, I ain’t playing. Wish I’da been there. I woulda busted him dead in his how-much mouth. I woulda gone crazy on that joker. She was walking, man. Walking with her book bag on her shoulder, and that didn’t stop the white man from thinking he could buy him some cootchie, now did it? I’m telling you, son, when Whitey look at you he don’t see no paper, no fancy degrees. All he see is black skin. Right?” He holds out his hand and Frank slaps it. “Riiiight.”
“For real though, man,” Terrence starts again. “Taco Bell over on Admiral Boulevard is hiring. Just don’t let them put you on drive-through. My cousin got held up twice.”
The cafeteria at St. Lukes’s is hiring. Frank knows this because his mother’s a nurse and she’s trying to get him to put in an application, but he’d rather tear tickets at the Cineplex on the Plaza than work in a hospital. I glance over at Maroo working on a rib bone, listening at Luigi and looking at me. She shakes her head which means she’s not thrilled about my guests. She always says watch the company you keep; stay away from people who like to keep up a bunch of mess and confusion. I’m not confused though, I’m thinking on my first painting for Artlab, The Boys of Summer.
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