Grapevine, Part 2

It was surreal to hear Shara’s name come out of Deana’s mouth, when I asked how she met Billy. I knew she knew of her. Who didn’t?

Once, I was on an online message board and one of the subjects was North End Landmarks. There, listed among historical monuments and turning points in the city’s history, was Shara’s full name.  She was the only person listed. I tried to email the original poster of the message but he didn’t reply. Was he a victim of her wrath? Or someone who tried to love her?

After what seemed like an eternity, I told Deana yes, I did remember Shara. And this is the story she told:

I was living in an apartment not far from here. Billy and Shara lived upstairs and Shara’s cousin Robin lived downstairs. Robin and I were really cool and I used to hang out at her place quite a bit. One day she said, ‘Shara don’t be treatin’ her man right. He’s a good man too. I’mma hook ya’ll up.’ So that’s how it all started. Me and Billy used to meet up at Robin’s place, mostly to talk. Not long after we started seeing each other, I decided to move and I asked him if he would come with me. He said yeah. I was really scared of Shara, but I didn’t let her know it. ‘Cause, girl, she is really crazy…you heard what she did to that one man, right?

I could not believe my good fortune I was finally going to find out more about Shara and “what she did to that one man.”  That became a catchphrase that you’d hear sprinkled in adult conversation. It would always be followed by a grimace or a head shake. His name and how he encountered her wrath was a mystery to everyone.

“Well, what did she do to him?” I asked casually as we headed toward the highway ramp. I had hoped that Deana didn’t noticed how perked up my ears were or that I was starting to drive faster than usual. Billy had bought Deana her dream car, an olive green Volvo sedan. It was her pride and joy. Aside from Billy, I was the only other person she had ever let drive it.

Girrrll! She lured him into the hallway of an apartment house near Cabbage St. He owed her some money, right? Once he got inside there, he said he wasn’t going to give her nothing, right? She pulled a big piece of wood off the stair case…girl it had the nails in it and everything and beat him half to death. To this day, he’s still messed up.

I wondered if he was the original poster of the message board.

Anyway, one night we were inside of our apartment, right? We had moved down to Sands. Somebody was knocking on the door, right? I looked through the peephole and it was Shara! I was so scared, right? I told Billy he had better get her away from outside my door…’cause you know I’m scared of her but I won’t let her know it.

Deana’s comments about how afraid she was of Shara would always be followed by a nervous chuckle. I couldn’t imagine Deana being afraid of anyone; however, with this, she convinced me.

“I been knowing Shara since I was a little girl. Billy went outside there and I heard her tell him to come home with her and he said, ‘Nah this is where I’m at now.” Girl, then it sounded like they was fightin’, right? And Billy came back in the house and said Shara had cut him on his face. Girl, blood was everywhere!

I remember several times wondering about the deep gash on the side of Billy’s nose. I never asked how he got it. It had this crisscross look, like a carving. It looked deliberate.

Deana said Shara called the police and told them something about Billy having warrants and he got arrested. Shara ended up leaving before the police got there, and they never saw her again.

“I had just got my income taxes, right?” Deana said still nervously laughing at Shara’s rage. ” I didn’t hesitate to go downtown and get Billy out of jail.”

Billy told Deana that night he was convinced he would be with her forever.

My mind couldn’t help but drift while Deana was talking. I could see Shara in my daydream heading towards Albany Avenue alone in the dark. It was the street where Miss Mabel’s church and the Rockabye bar were located. The avenue where folks poured out their sorrows in one way or another. I know what she did was terrible but at that moment, I really felt sorry for her. I don’t think she meant to hurt Billy when she cut him.

I believe she just wanted to leave her mark, an insignia that said, Remember, you loved me first.

Deana reminded me again that she remembered Shara while growing up and how the tales of her always frightened her. Each time she mentioned her name, she’d scan the outside of the car, like she expected Shara to jump in front of it.

She told me she knew a girl who knew Shara’s whole family. Deana said that woman told her a story of alleged abuse that Shara experienced as a child. It was said that the acts were only directed towards her. I won’t record the details of the abuse, but after hearing it, I was certain I had discovered the root of her rage.

“You know she had those other two kids, right?” Deana continued as we pulled into her driveway. It was a known fact that Shara had another set of children at a very early age who were given to some else to raise. Deana said the woman told her that it was rumored that Shara’s father, Mr. Neil, was also the father of the children.

I felt a twinge of sickness in the pit of my stomach. Hearing the news was almost too much to bear. I couldn’t help but think back to the expression on the faces of her family members when anyone mentioned her name. Now I realize, it was a look of pity and shame.

“Guess that’s how she got that way,” Deana said, shrugging her shoulders as we headed towards the front door.

I tried to share the story with Deana about how Shara had asked me to attend church with her when I was a child. As with everyone else her reaction showed indifference.

I thought about how pristine Shara’s childhood home was. I could imagine them scrubbing and cleaning hoping the secret stain would be washed away.

But like grape juice splashed on clean white linen, it was be next to impossible to remove by human effort.

I thought of times I’d watched her attempt to reach for normal. That day I understood, if these accusations were true, nothing in her foundation could ever support that stand.

For several days, the flames of Shara’s rage kept coming to me. Sometimes fire purifies; sometimes it damages.

Please stay with us for the conclusion, Grapevine, Part 3.

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Grapevine, Part 1.

Life Through Me is a series of autobiographical vignettes, featuring various people and experiences I’ve encountered. The first section, Life With Billy was about my relationship with my favorite uncle. The second section Billy’s Girlfriend and Shara’s Song explored his turbulent relationship with his ex. Grapevine is the three part conclusion to this segment. Hope you’ve enjoyed the series! 

Because my life had always been interwoven with Billy’s, I would periodically make trips back to North End to visit. My main reason for returning was because I was curious about his new girlfriend, Deana. On the surface, I had grown indifferent about my quest for Shara, partly because Billy stopped mentioning her and also because I was almost certain it was her I had seen the last time I was in town.

If that was truly Shara I had seen, when had she become someone who would deny who she was? I was disappointed in her. But another part of me was still perplexed about how she had come to be. Why was she so different from her siblings? What was the source of all her rage? Would I ever solve these mysteries?

I don’t quite remember the first time I had actually met Deana but I do remember my reaction to her. I was as befuddled about Deana’s arrival as I was about Shara’s departure. Staring at her standing slightly behind Billy that day, I tried hard to find something about her that appealed to him. Billy always liked flashy women who seemed to live life in the fast lane. Deana was as plain as Shara was ornate. She held her head down as if she was waiting for some type of approval. Meeting Deana caused me to reminisce about the day I first laid eyes on Shara.

I couldn’t have been any more than four years old, but I remember the day I stood there looking at this bejeweled woman and listening to Billy announce her name with pride. There was something strange about her, perhaps it was the full cast she had on her left leg. I think the story behind that was that she had gotten in a fight with some man and her leg was broken in the process. She strutted around in the cast almost like she did in high heels; acting as if she had known us for ages. Nothing hindered her. I remember wondering why would someone want a girlfriend with a broken leg. It was like having a damaged doll. Why won’t Billy take her back and get another one? my four year old mind wondered.

Looking at Deana the day I met her, I could see brokenness but not in her limbs. Something seemed to be broken in her spirit making her appear disjointed. It was as if she had to heal on her own. There was a shyness about her, you could tell that by the way she cocked her head to the side. Still there was something in her stance that let you know she was the gatekeeper of her soul. I could tell that Deana was a perfect blend of raw city grit and southern charm. She had created this persona and she seemed determined to hold it together.

Deana was the color of coffee beans roasted in the blistering Hawaiian sun. You got the impression that your experience with her would be strong and bitter. However, it didn’t take long to realize that she was guarded with her true personage. She reserved it like fine dark chocolate you keep for special guests. As time went on her demeanor lightened her eyes and her smile sweetened, and before long, like a great cup of coffee, she’d warm and stimulate you.

Deana and I became fast friends. I liked watching her cater to Billy. It was nice to finally see someone caring for him. He was 16 years older than her. He became the father she needed; she was the daughter he wanted. She had a girly cackle that he loved. I realized it the day she told me he had sent a clown with balloons to her job on her last birthday.

“Tahamee, you should have seen it, right? That clown came inside there and just started singin’,” she chuckled as Billy stood beside her, smirking.

Deana had a funny way of talking. She would always use unnecessary words in her sentences. It was as if she thought by doing so she’d  add strong emotions to her statements.

Theirs was a love that we all watched unfold over time. Even though their relationship was being perfected, they both seemed to be self medicating something. She was a shopaholic; he was a drinker, and they both were chain smokers. Still they were steadily becoming one of my favorite couples.

Billy was starting to lose that worried look he had when he was with Shara. Our family adored her and I liked to see my grandmother purse her lips and relax her shoulders when she’d announce to the family they would soon be visiting. She seemed pleased that her oldest son managed to find a woman who had her domestic abilities.

It didn’t take long for my friendship with Deana to progress to sisterhood. I was honored, knowing that this had only happened because she allowed it. It was through her I learned how to truly love and care for a man. Some things she told me, some I learned through observation, eventually watching Billy decide to stop drinking and marry her.

As with any bond, Deana and I shared take-to-your-grave secrets and had days of strife. If you were someone she had newly trusted, she would sulk over an offense and give you the silent treatment. She could ignore you for hours or days, periodically glancing at you, making sure you were still nearby.

Our relationship was on the mend when Deana entered treatment for a terminal illness. When I first heard the news, it was as if someone had placed a huge bowling ball on my chest. It was a crushing pain.

Soon as I heard she had started daily treatments at the hospital, I rushed backed to North End to be by her side. Though she was always a woman of faith, there was a sadness about her now. It was difficult listening to her conversations. They were always worded in a way that let you know that she had accepted her condition and was just sitting around waiting for her day to die.

I tried to do everything I could to boost the morale in their household. I would take Billy out for long drives.  Billy and Deana had moved to the suburbs so we’d ride down our old street to look at 105, which was now overgrown by weeds and had a huge sign with cement blocks, threatening trespassers.

I would get out and talk to those who still lived in the the old neighborhood. He would stay in the car with his arms folded saying, “Tam, these young thugs don’t care about us old timers anymore.” I thought visiting the old neighborhood would cheer him up, as he liked to recall his days of street life.

On the days that Deana went to the hospital for treatment, I would accompany her. After her appointments, we would take the long route home. She liked seeing her old landmarks, recounting stories of her first apartment or her childhood home. Even though it was brief, it was great to see her smile again. I tried to think of ways to keep the smiles coming, so one day I asked her, “Deana, how did you meet Billy?”

She threw her head back, let out a nervous chuckle and said, “Well, you remember Shara, right?”

Shara’s Song, Pt. 3

Closing the book entitled North End, I placed it on the lowest shelf in my mind.  I wanted it to grow dusty and old. Hopefully one day it would disintegrate.

What purpose did that place serve in my life? Why were my experiences there so ugly? So painful? Will I ever have happy endings? I thought one day.

It wasn’t hard to make new friends in the Midwest. Before long my days were filled with football games, quarters parties and trips to the mall. Almost as swiftly as the seasons changed, Junior high days turned into High school days and my social life went into high gear. I dated. A lot. It seemed that for several years straight I always had a love interest but no love.

Nobody ever sparked my happy butterfly.

A few times during my high school years, I went back to North End, although I avoided all the old landmarks. I’d heard there had been an exodus and all our old neighbors had moved to the suburbs or  the outskirts of town.

Like a cancer, our beloved building 105 was now totally ravished with drugs and crime and had even claimed the life of Mr. Doyle, our landlord. 105 was his pride and joy. We were always taught to be polite and respectful to him and his property. It was not so with the new tenants . He was lured in the basement around the first of the month, robbed, and shot, execution style. I still feel a pang in my heart when I think about it. Most of the former residents will not even go down that street let alone talk about living there.

During one of my visits to North End, I was able to catch up with Debbie. We went out one night and she told me that Derek had been asking about me.

I blinked extra hard as I felt my happy butterfly dance a jig.  “Oh?!” I replied trying real hard not to seem too eager as the last words he had spoken to me still stung a decade later.

“Yeah, girl, he said next time you come to town he wants to see you” Deb said nonchalantly. She always said things in a way to let you know there was something else on her mind. She wasn’t impressed after all; he was her first cousin and not a big deal.

To me, it was everything.

I’m not sure how it all happened but it wasn’t long before I was making regular trips back east. Billy had moved back and was living with his new girlfriend Deana. I laugh now about how I would tell Billy I really wanted to visit  but it was Derek I wanted to see.

Derek still had his boyish good looks. Even though there was more thug now than Alex Vanderpool, he managed  to maintain both images.  I loved spending time with him when I visited.  We would go to clubs and restaurants, visit friends in North End or stop by to see his family as we tried to make the most of our brief time. We were both happy to finally see what it felt like to actually date as adults. He was living with an older girl who I had met as a child. She lived around the corner from Miss Mabel’s. I never even bothered to probe to find out more about his relationship.

I was too busy enjoying my first love.

During one of my visits, Derek and I had planned to meet up downtown. Not sure why since normally he would pick me up at Billy and Deana’s place. They live in the Sands, a high rise apartment community on the outskirts of downtown. Pacing back in forth as I waited, I noticed two women who were the same height coming up the block. They stood out because they had on too many clothes for such a warm spring day. My eyes focused on one of them. She had caramel even- toned skin and a  bloated look that made it seem like if you stuck a pen in her she would deflated draw in like a raisin. She didn’t look like anyone I knew, yet some about her was familar.

“Shara!” I yelled jumping in front of her. Her eyes locked with mine. I saw fear in them.

“You remember me?… It’s Tam!”

“Uh uh.” The old Shara I knew was a quick liar. I was certain this was her. Her clothing made me second guess myself. The Shara I used to know was a sharp dresser, This woman’s clothing was dark and made her look frumpy and old.

“So your name is not Shara?”

“Uh uh” She insisted.

After interrogating her for a few minutes, she continued to deny that she was Shara. Something in her eyes was pleading with me not to ask any more questions.

The other lady walking with her, had moved over to a grassy patch under a lamp post, stayed within earshot. She had dropped her head but would occasionally dart her eyes in my direction. Her body language revealed to me that my assumptions were correct: I had indeed found Shara.

Feeling helpless and unable to come up with any more questions, I had to let her go. Moving aside, I watched as she and the other woman, sluggishly walked down the hill, to the heart of downtown. I would recall this story to Billy many times over the years, wondering if that was really Shara.

He would always intently listen, as if he were waiting for me to reveal some missing part of the story. Mentions of her would soften his face, saddening him.

As a dazzling firecracker, that lights up a summer sky, but swiftly turns to a downward fizzle, so did my relationship with Derek. We were worlds apart. He loved street life more than anything. I could see the rush in his eyes when he talked about the cops chasing him, where he stashed his wares or how he beat some charge.

I wanted a simpler quiet life, to be married one day and perhaps to have more children. I could never imagine living back in North End; he couldn’t imagine life anywhere else.

I remember our last night together. After a night on the town, we went back to Billy and Deana’s and decided to take a stroll around the complex. I don’t know if it was actually said, but we knew we probably wouldn’t see each other for a very long time if ever. With the bright downtown lights as our back drop, we paused by a  wooden utility pole. Derek removed a knife from his pocket and carved, Derek and Tam forever in the pole encasing it in a heart.

“I’ll never get married until I hear that you are,” Derek said as we headed to the front door.

I knew he was probably lying but I loved the sound of it. It was a corny line, I know, but there was nothing lame about what we felt.

It was as if Derek was determined to give me a complete first love experience. Something that would warm my heart causing my butterfly to go into a frenzy.

I haven’t seen Derek since that night. I did however receive a call from him a few years later.  I was living here in Maryland and he wanted to see if we could give it one last try. He was even willing to meet me half way, by moving to Maryland. Who knows for sure if he was really serious? He may have been sincere or perhaps just wanted to move his “operation” to my region.

I told him that I was engaged to someone else. I wanted so badly to throw caution to the wind and follow my heart, allowing my butterfly to soar like it was meant to.

I chose to stay with the man I was engaged to. Our relationship ended a few months later. I don’t regret either decision.

Through Derek I learned your happy butterfly is eternal.

There’s more, please keep reading with us as we finally learn more about Shara!

Shara’s Song, Pt. 2

As much as I tried to, I could not recall having any interaction with Shara after going to church with her. It was almost as if a scene had ended in a play I had been watching. The lights dimmed, the curtain dropped, but there was no applause.

How did this drama end? Would I ever find out what happened to the protagonist?

Over the years, I had hoped so.

Part of the reason I lost track of Shara was because we had moved back to the midwest where I found Billy despondent. I don’t know why Mom and I relocated when we did, but for me it could not have happened soon enough. My mother was in a tumultuous relationship that I hoped day and night would end, and I was experiencing puppy love which ended with me being dogged.

His name was Derek. He was the cousin of my neighbor Debbie who lived in 105. One Saturday, I was pretty bored and thought I would go visit her. There was never a dull moment at Debbie’s place. Their living room was always filled with drug addicts who were  heading to or fresh out of rehab. Some were relatives, and some were friends, who would congregate in their front room discussing court dates and methadone dosages.

“Immo get it together, Miss Sadie; next time you see me, this monkey won’t be on my back,” someone would say.

“Well, I sure hope so!” Miss Sadie, Debbie’s mom, would always reply with a sigh, as she rolled her eyes towards the ceiling. Miss Sadie used to own a bar on the avenue similar to the one Billy would take me to. She had become ill not long after opening the bar and was disabled. Now an arm chair psychologist, it seemed as if every addict or hustler had followed her from the avenue to her apartment for advice. So there I would sit for hours listening to Miss Sadie dishing out home spun wisdom. She knew every hustler, street urchin, or prostitute who had ever strolled the avenue and could go back three or four generations giving details of their family history.

Some days she would just sit, chain smoking Camels, and school me on the ways of street folk.

“Now a wino will be honest with you, Tam. When he’s drunk, he will spill his guts and admit that he is an alcoholic. But there is something about dope that makes people lie,” she said one day as her voice trailed off. We sat silently as if she needed time to think about the many times she had been lied to.

I had expected the day that I met Derek to be like any other visit to Miss Sadie’s and Debbie’s apartment. I could already hear the rumble of simultaneous conversations as I approached their door.

Once inside, I gave a swift greeting and slipped into a nearby chair like I was attending a community meeting. The visitors that day didn’t look like folks I had seen in North End before and they weren’t: at least not anymore. They were actually relatives of Miss Sadie’s. Her sister Juanita and two of her children, Angela and Derek.

Juanita and her husband Ron owned a night club on the other side of town. Determined to free their family from North End, they scrimped and saved until they were able to move to the side of town where I had visited Shara’s family.

“Oh Tam, I want you to meet my sister Juanita and her…” was all I heard Miss Sadie say that day, once I laid eyes on her nephew, Derek.   He was a slender built cinnamon colored young man with soft brown hair and a lazy eye that gave him a dreamy look. Derek was the coolest guy I had ever seen.  His clothing was preppy and polished like Alex Vanderpool’s, but something underneath that image screamed young thug. I was completely smitten.

That day it was as if I had swallowed a happy butterfly that never wanted to be free. It was content just fluttering around in my stomach.

My first reaction must have been very obvious as I caught a glimpse of Miss Sadie and her sister exchanging glances and giggling. She would tease me about that for years to come. After a brief visit, I excused myself and headed back to our apartment. I felt like if I didn’t leave soon that happy butterfly was sure to fly right out of my mouth. Plus, staring at Derek and his sister’s clothing was starting to make me  feel like Cinderella before the ball.

My pastel colored sweat shirt and jeans were no match for their attire. Derek was wearing a pair of really nice dress pants with a plaid shirt, a v-neck angora knit sweater, and a black leather  jacket.  Angela’s outfit gave her a militant, defiant look. Her huge curly afro couldn’t help but  compliment the brown suede fringed jacket and mini skirt she was wearing. Her enormous hooped earrings, choker and high heeled suede boots made her look confident and powerful. Instantly, I wanted to be like her.

Something about their apparel made me think of how they must have chosen their images carefully and how hard their parents must have worked to help them maintain those images.

Over the next few months, Derek would make several visits to 105. Sometimes with his mom but most of the  time alone. For fleeting moments I would allow myself to think that his frequent visits to North End were because of his growing attraction to me, although deep down I knew they weren’t.  Juanita and her husband had prepared a banquet table for their children, allowing them to feast on everything their new money could provide. North End had already whetted Derek’s appetite and he could not stay away.

Derek’s real reason for visiting North End didn’t matter to me; I was just glad when he did. I’d looked for reasons to be around when he was visiting but I’d beat up on myself because I couldn’t think of anything to say. Being around him made me shy and awkward. There were plenty boys who liked me in our neighborhood but none as intriguing as Derek.

Is he shy or just trying to play it cool? Does he even like me at all? Does he think about me as much as I think about him?  I’d think as I wrote our names, encased in hearts on every flat surface I could find.

Whenever he visited, we would engage in some conversation and I even think he had called me a few times. Still I wanted more of his attention but wasn’t sure how to get it. When I wasn’t pining over Derek, I would occasionally think about the girls he must be meeting in his neighborhood. Girls who sparkled more and always knew the right things to say. Those thoughts usually made me more uneasy, and it would show whenever he came around.

It wasn’t long before he stopped visiting 105 altogether. Debbie and her family had moved to a housing project across town and I hardly saw her.

One day I got a call from Debbie. “Derek is having a party this weekend. Why don’t you see if you can come over and maybe we can go to the party.” she said. I was all for it. I knew getting a ride would be difficult for us as neither of our parents had cars.

Saturday night came and as we predicted, we couldn’t get rides to the party. This didn’t seemed to bother Debbie at all but I was very disappointed. I begged her to call him. I knew I was getting ahead of myself and my emotions were overriding  my judgment but I had to find out how he really felt. Mom had already announced that we would be moving to the Midwest any day now. Before my life in North End came to a close, I wanted it to have a happy ending.

Debbie finally gave in and agreed to call. “Oh somebody wants to speak to you….Tam” I heard her say before handing me the phone.

“Hello?” I said with a nervous giggle. I could hear that the party was in full swing. The music was loud and bumping and the people were louder. It sounded packed. I had hoped that perhaps Derek would want us to come once he heard that we weren’t  able to, that he would even ask his parents or one of his older siblings to pick us up.

Quite the contrary. After a few minutes of awkward dialogue, he said these words: “I have to go! I’ll talk to you when the time comes….if the time comes!” That’s all I remember about that night. I’m not sure if he hung up on me or if I laid the phone down or told Debbie. All I knew that night was the chapter of my life that had taken place in North End was over, and hopefully, I’d never have to read it again.

Little did I know years later, I’d be compelled to.

Shara’s Song, Part 1

Although it was a warm spring day outside, there was something about the inside of Shara’s church that reminded me of autumn. It had the feel of a season where things that were once alive and flourishing were now cold and dying.

As Shara and I were walking to church, I was wondering if the service was going to be more like Miss Mabel’s church, the new babysitter Mom had found for me. Miss Mabel, whose chestnut brown skin and long shiny black hair made her resemble a thinner version of Mahalia Jackson, was what we called ‘sanctified’ back then. She attended the holiness fire-baptized church down on the avenue. I remember the day I went to her house with Mom to talk to her about babysitting me.

“Well, you have to bring her dresses…’cause we go to chuuurch,” she said as they sat there discussing times and prices. It was something about the way she said church that made me think we would be there for a very long time.

It wasn’t long before I was attending the nightly revival services along with Miss Mabel and her eight kids. We’d take up a whole row of the tiny storefront church. The hot bright lights and mahogany wood paneling on the walls and floors made the church look like the basement of someone’s home. There were no frills in the sanctuary or the parishioners, as if any decor or adorning had to be left on the other side of the threshold.

Still, the tiny holiness church spared no expense on the instruments. The state-of-the-art organ, drumset and microphones were quite similar to those I had seen in the Rockabye Bar, down the street.

We would watch the ushers “nurse,” as we called it, fanning heavy laden souls and snatching babies or eye glasses from the folks so they could feverishly dance around uninhibited. Our prattle couldn’t be heard over the loud shaking of the tambourines, or the saints picking them up and putting them down on the hard wood floors. The holy dancing sounded like the marching of a well disciplined army. They were soldiers indeed.

Eventually, without being told, I’d learn to sit still in the house of the Lord, realizing it was the place where God lived. There I’d sit in taupe colored folded chairs, watching bodies fall around me, slain by the power of God. During one service, a man fell in the aisle to my right. His glassy eyes were fixated on the ceiling as his mouth foamed, eventually muffling his hallelujahs and cries to Jesus.

“Those people have the whitest teeth. I guess it’s all that foamin’ at the mouth,” I remember Mom saying one day. I’m not even sure why she was telling me that. She had a way of telling me things that went way over my head,kind of like her comments were meant for grownups but since there weren’t any around, I’d just have to do.

I sat there, calmly peering down at the man stretched out on the floor, remembering Mom’s description but beginning to comprehend on my own what was taking place. I understood that this was one of many ways that people served and sacrificed to God. Over time, I also noticed the strength and power He gave them in exchange.

As soon as we entered the sanctuary of the church I was attending with Shara, I realized there would be a vast difference between Miss Mabel’s church and Shara’s church. Still, I knew God had more than one household and I need to be still while visiting Him.

As soon as Shara wearily sat down on the pew that Easter sunday morning, her shoulders drooped forward and she sobbed.

She cried so hard I thought she was going to break in two. Her whole body shook, especially her stomach. The tears were coming from a deep cavity in her soul that most people didn’t think she had.

She was equipped with an endless amount of tissue. As soon as she soaked through one she would simultaneously pull out another. I had never seen anybody cry that hard for two solid hours let alone be silent while doing it. She didn’t even look like herself. With her black mascara collecting at the bottom of her lashes, her sharp ebony eyes resembled muddy puddles in a rain storm.

I didn’t even know she knew how to cry.

At one point she just covered her mouth, as if she wanted to throw up.

I felt so bad for her. Shara’s church wasn’t the kind of church you cried in. It was the type where folks left their tears at home, only showing up there to prove how successful they were. Still it was the only place Shara knew.

Nobody looked at her. She was the only one crying. No usher came over to her with tissue or a hug. No minister or deacon approached her to pray. Instead Shara worked it out the best way she knew how.

Although she was not physically leaning on me, I was starting to feel heavy and helpless. It felt like the weight of her burden and the flood of her tears would eventually swallow me up.

Why didn’t I ask if we could go to Miss Mabel’s church? I thought. I wasn’t certain if that was the right place for her or not. Her passion didn’t match theirs, but any place would have been better than where we were.

One thing I was certain of, Shara handpicked me to be there with her that Sunday morning; I felt it. I’m not sure why she chose me to go with her that day. Could I have been the only one who wouldn’t judge her or think that her tears weren’t real? Maybe she saw me as someone who would use all the grey matter they could muster to try to comprehend her pain. Who knows for sure, all I know is Shara could be full of drama, but this was no performance.

This was the real her.

I don’t remember anything said in the sermon. The message and the announcements had the same tone. There was no soul stirring music. It felt more like we were there to mourn the dearly departed rather than celebrate Someone who triumphantly rose.

The only offering I remembered that day was Shara’s tears.

If any of her family members were there for the Easter service, she didn’t greet them, and they didn’t come over to her.

“Well, let’s go,” she said with a faint smile as soon as the service ended. I noticed it wasn’t hard for her to rise to her feet. She was light as a feather.

“You wanna go get some ice cream?” she said as we headed towards the door. Lincoln Dairy a local ice cream parlor was across the street. Everybody went there on Sundays. We crossed Main Street to go to the dairy never discussing the church or the service.

Once we placed our order, we sat there eating our ice cream chattering about nothing in particular. I kept trying to search her face, hoping to get a clue of what was going on inside of her. Her dark eyes were back on duty, darting around the ice cream parlor.

The only thing I remember about the walk home, was how brightly the sun was shining on us.

Billy’s Girlfriend, Part 3.

My life would continue to intermingle with Billy and Shara’s during the time I lived in North End. However, I was having a difficult time learning to navigate my childhood through inner city living.

I can’t really say whether the visit with Shara’s family that day had any effect on me. I don’t remember being confused or understanding her any better.

The whole visit just got filed away in that deep cabinet in my soul, where I stored everything that my woman-child eyes took in.

I certainly noticed the contrast between her and her family, but that was minimal compared to the things I saw on a daily basis.

As children, my friends and I saw real life played out in its rawest form. It wasn’t like some sitcom, where children got sent to their room as adults played and fought. They did almost everything right in front of us, in plain view.

We would emulate them, using terms we weren’t sure of. “Let me go to my check-end account,” one girl said as we played. She was referring to a checking account, which most of us had overheard adults talking about.

Our eyes and ears gleaned much. We would stop by each other’s house on the way to school to “pick each other up” as we called it. During those stops, it was nothing to see some man asleep in an adjacent room. “That’s my mother’s boyfriend,” the child would say. She would tell you all she intended for you to know in that one sentence. It was placed before you like a sacred line you didn’t dare cross with further questioning.

Sometimes you’d stop by and there would be a sister or brother who looked almost as old as the parents. The kid would tell you that their big brother or sister would be staying with them now.

“Oh,” would be the way we would always respond.

As children growing up in the North End, we had problems of our own. I would occasionally think about my uncle, Shara and the boys when I didn’t see them, but I was more concerned about a huge dilemma I was having: I was being bullied. My tormentors were boys. It would start with them liking you, buying you wine candy (Jolly Ranchers) or Mary Janes on the way to school. They would walk with you, telling you they would “take up” for you, which meant protect you.

Then one day out of the blue, your “boyfriend” would approach you at lunch or on the playground at recess and tell you that you’d better run after school because he was going to beat you up. He’d tell the whole school for the rest of the day in a profanity-laced rant what he was going to do to you when he caught you.

So you’d run, maybe duck into a store and make it home unharmed. If you were really lucky, you could hide out for a few days avoiding him altogether. Sometimes you weren’t so fortunate and you would get into a fight.

One time a “boyfriend” had injured me and I got sent home with a huge white bandage wrapped around my elbow. The bandage made it look worse than it was. My suitor was proud of the bruise he left.

“I’M TIRED OF THESE BOYS BEATIN’ ON MY DAUGHTER!” Mom screamed at someone in the school office the next day. Funny how even back then, we didn’t want to tell on the boys for fear of something worse happening.

After everything would seem to die down, they would be back on the playground, trying to woo you again with candy.

Years later, the Holy Spirit brought this time period to my rememberance. He told me, the twisted form of affection these young boys were trying to express was what they saw in their homes.

Today, we call it domestic violence.

My experiences growing up there caused me to worry a lot. I was always weighted down with secrets-my own and others. Soon I was biting my nails, just like I’d seen Shara and her sons do.

That’s what I was doing the day Shara asked me the strangest question.

“Bay,” she said as she walked toward me. She had stopped by one day for a visit without Billy or the boys. “How would you like to go to church with me tomorrow? It’s Easter Sunday.” I was sitting on the living room floor, with my legs crossed playing with my Barbies. Periodically, I’d take a break, to pick at the skin around my nails.

Shara was standing over me, with her hand on her hip, looking directly down at my face waiting for an answer. I didn’t know which was more odd, her looking directly at me or hearing the word “church” come out of her mouth.

I couldn’t help but notice her facial expression. She looked sad and mad at the same time. Her pouty bottom lip was glossy as usual and the corners of her mouth were turned upward. Her facial expression looked like, “You better say yeah”. There was something about her that day that made her look like one of my peers. She had that you’re-suppose-to-be-my-friend look that one of your buddies would give you when they wanted to guilt you into doing them a favor. I was staring at her so hard, I forgot to answer.

“Yeah?” I replied which came out sounding more like a question.

“Okay, I’mma pick you up tomorrow at 10:30. So be ready!” she said, slamming the door.

“Shara be lyin'”, I said to myself. I sat there on the floor thinking about our brief conversation as I buried my nail-bitten fingers in a pile of Barbie clothes trying to find an outfit that resembled what I thought Shara would wear.

One day, I asked Shara to play with my Barbies with me. She grabbed one from my collection, teased her hair out in this wild style and picked this glittery mini dress for her to wear. After she dressed her, she made her do a wild dance that made my Barbie look deranged. I didn’t think it was very funny, but Shara was hysterically laughing. She gave me this look that said, “Girl, please,” before handing me my doll back.

Shara was a real trip.

I was happy about the chance to hang out with her the next day. “But to go to church?” I thought. I spent the rest of the day wondering why Shara would make something like that up. I almost forgot to tell Mom that I was going.

I was ready and waiting that Easter Sunday morning, just in case it wasn’t a lie. Imagine my shock when at precisely 10:30am, Shara rung the bell. “It’s Shara. You ready, Bay?” she shouted through the intercom. Shara came up to get me. She had on a bad Coco Chanel suit that was silk or satin. It was a peach or tangerine color and had a sparkly broach. She was together from head to toe as usual.

Shara looked like a first lady.

It was slightly overcast that day, Shara and I walked to church. We were walking because, she had totaled the car, the Buick Riviera, my uncle bought for her. I found that out one day as mom and I walked home from Mott Supermarket.

“You know he went to the scene of that accident and told that officer that he was driving that car?” Mom said sounding disgusted. “It’s a shame he is such a fool for that girl!” she said shaking her head.

I remember hearing later that Shara had some warrants and would have gone to jail that day, but Billy stood in the gap for her.

Mom couldn’t stand Shara, although she treated her okay when she came around. My mother and uncle would have many arguments with Shara’s name laced throughout. Once Mom accused Shara of wearing her one of her fancy dresses-one of the ones she wore to cocktail sips. She said Shara wore the dress, then hung it right back up in the closet.

“I know she did it, ’cause I could smell her perfume!” I remember her saying to my uncle during one of their riffs.

Mother would fuss about that dress constantly. At least she didn’t steal it, I thought one day.

I don’t remember having much conversation with her on the way to church. She was walking fast like she was going to hook or hustle. I had to double time my steps to keep up with her. She looked so pretty that day, I couldn’t take my eyes off her.

The church was on Main street, which was approximately six blocks from our house. As we rounded the corner, Shara looked up towards the building and said, “This is my church! I went here when I was a little girl.” She seemed very excited, kind of like the day when she wanted to make the brownies.

I was so happy for her.

I remember passing the edifice before. It was kind of spooky looking; the kind of church where you hardly ever saw cars, even during the regular times of service. It had a tall black wrought iron fence around the building and the parking lot. The church set way back off the street. It was a huge building with beautiful long stained glass windows all around it.

Still, something about it reminded me of a giant tombstone.

We climbed the high concrete steps to get to the sanctuary. Once inside the foyer, I noticed there was no usher at the door and service had already started. The church just didn’t have that Easter Sunday feel. We sat in the second or third row from the back. Shara shooed me into the row so she could sit on the end. I scooted back onto the pew, she plopped down loudly on it.

I wasn’t prepared for what happened next.

Billy’s Girlfriend, Part 2

It seemed like ever since the night Shara had the “seizure”, everything seemed to go downhill for her and my uncle. I’m not sure how long they lived in that beautiful three family house on Edgewood, but it wasn’t very long. They moved around a lot, like nighttime nomads, to neighborhoods that were seedy and steeped with illegal activity.

Shara seemed to walk slower on certain days. The sassy strut that she had so skillfully perfected was now reduced to a sloppy shuffle. Her coal black darting eyes, were struggling to peer through her weighty lids.

Some people say the eyes don’t lie. Well, I say neither do hands. I remember the first time I noticed Shara’s hands. It was during one of those weekend gatherings the adults would have at our apartment. When Shara talked, she was always loud and animated, especially with a few drinks in her. I looked up one night,to find her wildly waving her cigarette in the air as if it would lead to the point she was trying to make. It was then that I noticed they were shockingly different from the rest of her. They were the same Sugar Baby caramel color, but her nails were chewed right down to the skin. It was as if they had something to say; but she was punishing them, trying to keep them silent.

Now they were screaming out, they had become swollen and claw like from repeated drug use.

Her stocky son, who appeared to have most of her ways, punished his hands as well. He would eventually pull three of his nails right off the nail beds.

“Look what this boy did!” Shara said one day as they were visiting. She was holding his arm up by the wrist to show us the mutilation. The skin had already started to grow over where the nail beds should have been.

“Does it hurt?” I asked him that day. I imagined it did as my own nail beds were starting to throb from staring at his.

“Nope,” he said, clearly proud of his accomplishment. He seemed happy to have mastered that level of pain.

Shara dropped his wrist in disgust and walked off. She seemed to be upset only by the fact they he had gone too far.

The one thing that never changed was Shara’s fashion sense and cleanliness. She still kept her appearance together, along with her sons and her man.

As Shara was trying to juggle her growing addiction and domestic life, Billy was contending with a jones of his own:a love jones. Loving Shara seemed to be a full time job. He always seemed edgy and preoccupied. The playful, silly side I loved so well was barely seen now.

Before,he would stop by regularly to the apartment that Mom and I shared, as he still had a room there. He used to say things like, “Hey Tam, why did the boat tip over?”, giving me the beginning of some corny riddle. I would skip behind him, begging for the punch line. Most of the time he wouldn’t give it, telling me I had to wait until the next time.

Now when he came by, he always looked despondent, like a huge weight was on his shoulders. He’d barely make conversation.

Billy was always trying to cover her; to shield her. But she was hurricane Shara, whose ferocious troubled winds and torrential rains of anger could not be tamed. Where there was Shara, there was trouble.

Like a hurricaine, people were always having Shara sightings. The stories involved her cutting someone, lying, details of her last prison stint, or someone seeing her downtown boosting. They would always end their tales with a cold chilling laugh. Pretty soon I started turning a deaf ear to it all.

I wanted to see more of the Shara that giggled and wanted to make brownies that Saturday evening at their apartment, the girl with the frilly kitchen.

I wondered if they ever got tired of talking about her. Did they ever think she was at one time somebody’s little baby girl?

Billy, Shara, and the boys, came by one day to pick me up. They would do this occassionally taking us out for ice cream or to Riverside Park, a local amusement park locate near our town. I wondered where we were headed that day, as we were going in the opposite direction.

“We gotta make a quick stop,” Billy said to me and the boys, before we could ask any questions.
“We’re goin’ over Mommy’s,” Shara added. I don’t remember the boys’ reaction to this. I was too busy thinking about how funny it was to hear her refer to her mother as mommy.

Shara’s family didn’t live very far from me, yet the neighborhoods were worlds apart. Mom and I lived in North End, the northern section of the inner city. Our neighborhood was full of three-family houses; houses that looked like three small single family home stacked on top of each other. Smack dab in the middle of the block was our apartment building: 105, as we called it. It was a 30 apartment building that set behind the houses. It was odd shaped and kind of looked like a red brick cruise ship. I wasn’t a tall building at all,it only had three floors that held ten apartments each.

Our building was owned by Mr Doyle from Doyle Construction. It was the only one of its kind in North End, and you could tell he put alot of thought into it. It seemed like he was trying to make a pleasant affordable place for families to live. It had an enormous fenced in backyard with lots of green grass in the back and sides of the building. The yard was in tip top shape because nobody ever went back there. Everybody stayed out front on the stoop.

There wasn’t much grass in the North End and it was as if nobody trusted it. Everybody wanted to be out front where the happenings were. Even the neighborhood cat had her kittens right by the noisy stoop for all of us to see.

The street where Shara’s family lived was quite the contrast. The streets were lined with beautiful trees and the homes had rose or azalea bushes out front. The grass reminded me of green shag carpeting that had been freshly vacuumed for company. The whole neighborhood looked like it was expecting us. Almost every house had those huge picture windows, as if they wanted everyone to look inside to see how happy they were.

Shara’s mom greeted us at the door. “Well, come on in. How’s everybody?” she said, holding the screen door as we slid past her. Miss Bea was a nice soft spoken woman, with press and curl hair, who was Shara’s complexion.

“Hi Mommy,” Shara said as she brushed past her mother. Her steps were loud and deliberate against their beautifully polished hardwood floors. She did her strut and she stomped her way straight back into the kitchen. I don’t recall her ever sitting down during our visit. She just cased the place like she was looking for something.

Shara’s mom pretended not to notice. She sat talking to us in the living room with her hands folded on her lap, like someone told her to sit still, just like that.

A lady once told a family member of mine when Shara was a teenager, there was a bus taking kids to New York City to a dance. As the bus was about to take off, Miss Bea stopped the bus and got on looking for Shara. She told the driver that she needed to get her daughter off the bus as she was not allowed to go. Shara and her mother argued and the whole scene ended with Shara fighting her mother like she was fighting someone in the streets.

That’s the first time I had ever heard someone tell a story about her and not laugh. I couldn’t imagine her fighting this saintly looking lady.

The first thing I noticed at Shara’s mom’s was where she got her cleanliness. Their home was so spotless, it didn’t look lived in. The hardwood floors and windows sparkled and the lacy curtains glistened. Everything seemed to be some shade of blue.

Over time, I would visit Shara’s family several times, eventually meeting all of her siblings. She had two brothers: an older brother named Rodney and a younger teenaged one named Kevin, who Shara seemed to adore. She would talk to her younger brother using that same baby voice that she used when she talked to Billy and her boys.

Her brother Rodney was a quiet serious looking guy who was a principal of a school or something. He had that same soft spoken voice the mother had and same carmel complexion. Something about him reminded me of Shara’s son, the sensitive one.

Then there was Shara’s sister Barbara. From the first time I met her, I could see that she was someone who seemed to vacillate between two worlds: Shara’s and the rest of the family. There was something about her that looked up to Shara and wanted to be like her. The family would eventually win and Barbara went on a get her degree in the medical field.

And last but not least was Shara’s fraternal twin sister, Sigrid. Meeting her was the most shocking of all. She had that same quiet soft spoken voice but she was the opposite of everything that Shara was. She was married homely, plain and very religious. She wore long dresses and wasn’t into styling her hair and all. She also had a college degree but was a stay at home mom with several small children.

It seems like every time I was around them I noticed something different. There were several frames on the wall which displayed graduation pictures, degrees, and the family’s credentials. There were none for Shara.

Everybody talked in the same low voice except for the sister that wanted to be like her. Her voice was midway. It was almost as though they believed if they talked any louder, they would reveal a secret.

Whenever you saw any of her family members, you could tell by their conversation, they were trying to distance themselves from her. Most times, there wouldn’t be any mention of her even though she was the only thing you had in common with them.

There was something Stepford about them; something mechanical, like they were trying too hard to be perfect. They seemed slightly hypocritcal.

I met Shara’s dad, Mr. Neil the day I met her mom. He was a dark skinned man who her stocky son resembled. He had Shara’s darting eyes and kept his hands in his pocket. His shoulders were not broad or square; they were rounded with a downward slope that gave him a guilty look.

I could tell Shara’s visit made her parents uncomfortable, although they were trying their best not to show it. They talked mostly to my uncle. They seemed to like him and appeared to be relieved that he was in Shara’s life.

I’m not sure what our visit that day was all about. It seemed more like Shara was making an appearance. Perhaps she was wanted to show off her own family, which included someone who was on her side.