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I did not want my new homeroom teacher, Ms. Adams, to shake Momma's hand.
The last time I changed schools, my teacher Mr. Colgate tried to shake my momma Betty's hand, but he noticed the burns on the tips of her fingers. Burns from smoking cigarettes down to the filter. Burns from smoking marijuana every night before she goes to bed. I know Mr. Colgate saw her burns, because he looked at her and frowned. People are always frowning at Momma, and that makes me sad. Sad that she cannot see herself. Sad that she finds fault in everyone's life except her own.
I wonder how long it will take the people at this school to realize that Momma is a crackhead. I wonder how long it will take them to realize that I feel more like her father than she acts like my momma. When will they realize that we are homeless?
Two days after Mr. Colgate saw Momma's burns, a social worker was standing at the door of our run-down townhouse. The house that stopped being home when Momma ran Daddy away. The social worker said that she had received a call from someone saying that I was living alone and in need of help. That was a lie. They were coming to investigate Momma. Again!
The social worker was coming to see if it was true that I could not let Momma stay alone too long because she cannot take care of herself. Social Services wanted to see if we had food in the house.
I was really sad that they were treating us like two-year-olds. It did not bother Momma at all that the social worker had stopped by again. She yelled at her and said the same old thing when she left: "What they stopping by here for? I got it going on."
I just looked at her and went to bed. I was ashamed to go to school the next day.
I liked going to Lincoln High School, the school I attended last year for two semesters. But I had to transfer, just like I had to transfer from all the other schools. We never stay in one place too long, not since Daddy left and Granddaddy died.
My new school, Dulles High, is bigger than Lincoln. The counselor says that there are only twenty students in each class and they have a zero tolerance policy here. At Lincoln we had at least thirty-five kids in all of my classes and the students pretty much ran the school. So I know I will like it here. It looks like the teachers are in charge for a change.
The main reason I like it here is no one knows me and they don't know Momma. They do not know that we are living in a homeless shelter. We have been living at the shelter for almost two weeks now.
The people here at Dulles High do not know that Daddy moved to Raleigh before he was deployed to Iraq so that he could get away from Momma. He moved because he could not take it anymore. He could not take the verbal and physical abuse. And he was afraid he would go to jail after Momma was stopped for speeding and the cops found drugs in the car. Of course the car was registered in Daddy's name. I was home watching football with Daddy that Sunday when Five-O knocked on the door. Officer Poole has known Daddy for years, so he had put Momma in the police car and driven her home. He told Daddy that he had to impound the car and the next time it happened Momma was going back to jail. I wanted to turn the TV off and yell, "There are more drugs in the cookie jar!"
If I had, Momma would not have been stopped by Five-O again two weeks later for a DUI. That time Momma spent sixty days in jail. I felt so sad and alone when she was away. I do not think going to jail bothers her at all. It gives her a chance to see all her friends who are in and out of the county jail for buying and selling dope just like Momma. Daddy knew he would be the next person to go to jail if he stayed with us.
After that Daddy filed for divorce and started fighting for custody of his only child. Me!
The people at this school do not know that my mother is in rehab more than she is at home. She's been in eight times that I am old enough to remember. If she can stay clean this time we can move out of the homeless shelter into our own apartment one day. Maybe I can stay at Dulles High and play tennis. I saw a notice on the board outside of the principal's office about tryouts next week. I'm not great at tennis, but Daddy is, and he taught me a lot on the courts near his house in Raleigh. I have played since I was little, and I want to be a tennis champion one day just like Arthur Ashe. Daddy went to college with Mr. Ashe. Daddy said if I try hard enough, I will be great like Mr. Ashe one day. Of course I plan to get my college degree and my master's, but Momma does not want to hear anything about tennis. She says I should just forget tennis because she thinks I am a better basketball player and I can get rich and buy her a house when I make it to the pros. Her sister, Shirley, told her to never say that to me again.
Aunt Shirley is a lawyer for the city of Durham, and she told Momma that "grades come first" before any sport, including tennis. Aunt Shirley is happy that I want to be a professional tennis player as long as I go to college, too. She tried to take me from Momma several times, just like Daddy did before he got the call from the army that took him halfway across the world.
But Momma told Aunt Shirley that she would never let me live with her. Momma thinks that Aunt Shirley is too uppity. But she is not; she just wants a better life for Momma and me. Aunt Shirley refuses to live in the ghetto and smoke until her teeth are green.
If Daddy were here he would still be fighting for me, because Momma would never willingly give me to him. I found out the real reason Momma wants me to live with her the last time Momma and Aunt Shirley got into an argument.
"My nephew is nothing but a welfare check to you, Betty. You just keep him so you can get child support from Peter and keep using fake names and addresses to get checks and food stamps."
"Get out of my house, Shirley," Momma screamed.
That's when Aunt Shirley said the words that made Momma stop speaking to her for three months.
"I'll go. But before I go, I am calling the Department of Social Services to report you. I should have reported you years ago. Even if you are my sister, I should have reported you when you hit Joseph in the face with that perfume bottle when he was only four years old because he would not stop crying. I should have reported you the first time you used a fake name to get a welfare check."
I stood behind the bathroom door and listened to Aunt Shirley tell Momma about all the illegal things she has done over the years. I wanted to run out and make her stop talking bad to Momma, but I did not. I knew that it was all true.
I cannot remember all the bad words that Momma said to my aunt after that. I do remember Aunt Shirley crying and saying to Momma, "You are always talking about what Joseph will do for you one day. Why should he buy you a house when you spend your money on drugs and cigarettes?"
Aunt Shirley was saying everything that she ever wanted to say to Momma that day. Things I wanted to say, but wouldn't. Not to my momma.
"And you are going to jail because you lied and told social services that Peter is dead."
How could Momma tell people Daddy is dead? I found out later that she is so desperate that she told several service agencies that Daddy was dead to get on welfare using her maiden name. Momma has no shame. She knows good and well that Daddy is alive and was living in Raleigh until he went overseas. I love Momma, but I do not understand her.
I do not understand how she thinks she has it going on. Why does she think I can take care of us? I am only fifteen years old.
I just want a normal life like my cousin Jasmine. She is Aunt Shirley and Uncle Todd's only child. But nothing is normal about my life with Momma. While she is thinking how she has it going on, we are moving, hiding from bill collectors, and stealing food from the corner grocery store. I do not want to live like this for the rest of my life. I want to finish high school and be what Granddaddy called a productive member of society. His name was Joseph too, Joseph P. Peele, and he was a preacher. Momma, Granddaddy, and I were living together until he died. I miss Granddaddy Joseph. Nothing has been the same since he died and left me at Momma's mercy.
Granddaddy loved sharing his nice house on Simons Street, just two blocks from North Carolina Central University, with us. He said if we lived with him, he could keep an eye on me. Granddaddy said that one day I would go to college at North Carolina Central, just like he did. Just like his brothers did. Just like Aunt Shirley and Jasmine, who is graduating with honors in May.
Momma graduated from North Carolina Central too, but our lives are such that you would think she is a middle-school dropout. She had a job at the IRS for about a year after she graduated, but that did not last long. She was fired from the IRS because they accused her of stealing social security numbers and selling them to her friends, who used them to get credit cards. The IRS could never prove that Momma did this, but they had enough evidence to fire her. Just not enough to send her to prison. Since then she has changed jobs every year. Of course, it is always someone else's fault. Aunt Shirley told her that day when they were arguing why she could not keep a job, "You run your mouth too much, and no one wants to smell your cigarette breath all day when you are in their face."
Momma does not want to work. Work interferes with her ability to go to happy hour. Happy hour was and still is her favorite time of day. She has been leaving me alone since I was six years old to go out with her friends. Granddaddy and Aunt Shirley stayed on Momma about going back to school to maybe get her master's.
Granddaddy Joseph told Momma that a good education would save her one day. But she did not want to hear that or anything he had to say. She did not like living with Granddaddy as much as I did. She thought he was too bossy, and she wanted to be her own woman. But she cannot be her own woman. He told her that being your own woman means keeping your lights connected for two months straight. Being your own woman means being able to pay your own rent if Peter's check is one day late from Iraq.
The week before we moved in with Granddaddy, we were living in the dark until Aunt Shirley e-mailed Daddy and told him that we did not have lights. He called the power company and had the lights turned back on. Of course Momma was trying to get him to wire her the cash, but he knew better. He would never put money in Momma's hand to pay a bill unless he had to. He just used his credit card to turn the lights on by telephone. He knew Momma would take that money and buy weed or get herself a new dress for happy hour.
"Girl," Granddaddy said with tears in his eyes, "if you want to be your own woman, you got to pray to God to help you. You got to get a job and make something of yourself. Stop using people."
But using people is Momma's only way of survival. She called every friend that Daddy had when he first went to Iraq. She was begging them for money until everyone started telling Daddy and he called her and let her have it. She did not care what Daddy said. She stopped calling Daddy's friends, but when she would run into his friends she'd cry broke until they gave her some money. She did not stop until she ran into Daddy's best friend, Mark, and he did not speak to her. She finally realized that everyone was just tired of her. She called that man a "fat pig" and every curse name in the book.
Granddaddy Joseph and Aunt Shirley were all we had left after Daddy was deployed and Daddy's friends turned their back on Momma. Daddy's family lives in Scotland Neck, North Carolina. They do not want to be bothered with Momma at all. They send me clothes and boxes of food every now and then, but they do not want to talk to Momma again in life. Of course, no one can convince her of that. Every time they have a family event she is trying to catch a ride to Scotland Neck to attend their functions. Functions that it is obvious she is not welcome at. She should focus on her own family, because Daddy's family thinks she is a crackhead just like people at Lincoln High used to say. Granddaddy would tell Momma how much he and her mother, Grandma Millie, loved her. He tried to tell her that she did not need Daddy's family. I have never felt that she needed them at all. She just likes to go around them now to try to get on Daddy's girlfriend Pauline's nerves. Pauline totally ignores Momma and looks at her with pity, if she looks at her at all. Momma needs to just go on with her life.
Granddaddy was always telling Momma to come to his house on the holidays and leave Daddy's family alone. He wanted her to know how much her own family loved her. He said that Grandma really loved Momma. Grandma Millie died from breast cancer before I was born. But Granddaddy kept her pictures all over the house. She was a pretty woman like Momma, but she had grace and style like Aunt Shirley. Her teeth shone like snow in the sunshine. Momma's teeth are stained from the cigarettes and marijuana that she smokes every day.
Granddaddy never understood why Momma kept making the same mistakes over and over again. It was her mistakes that made Daddy leave. I know that Daddy tried to get along with Momma. Besides, he only married her because she was pregnant with me. He knew she was not capable of taking care of a baby, so they got married. Daddy told her he wanted her to get a job so that she would have something to do with her time. He wanted her to stop smoking. He said she needed to stop using the grocery money to buy weed and beer. But Momma is addicted to everything bad and she cannot stop.
Daddy tried hard, and he put Momma in rehab eight times before he gave up. I think he got tired of going to the treatment centers all over North Carolina to visit her. Most of all, he got tired of taking me to see her. Daddy said those centers were no place for a child. I never said this to Momma, but I hated going to those centers more than Daddy hated taking me. I will never forget the day we went to one and Momma was talking out of her head to one of the guards. When she saw us coming she just got louder and pulled up her top and told the guard nasty things. That was the end for Daddy.
He turned around and walked away, dragging me along with him.
When Momma got out of the rehab center that time Daddy told her that he was leaving and taking me with him. Momma called the cops and before we could get to the door, cops were everywhere. Poor Daddy stayed because he did not want to leave me behind. He finally gave up after her last arrest, but he never stopped loving me and he did not stop taking care of me. When he gave up and went to Raleigh, he left money in the bank for us to survive, although he paid all the bills. Daddy continued to pick me up every weekend and fought hard to get sole custody. He said he knew the money was too much to give to Momma because of her addictions, but it was enough for emergencies if he was called away to the war. Three months later he was called to duty. Before Daddy even got on the plane, the money he gave Momma was gone.
After Daddy found out that Momma had spent all the money, he still tried to keep up with the bills, but no matter what he did, it was never enough. If he sent money for groceries, Momma was smoking it within an hour. If he sent the money to Aunt Shirley and told her to bring us groceries, Momma would give half of the food to her so-called friend, Aunt Clarine, who is in even worse shape than Momma. She used to be married to Daddy's brother Uncle Ed and they have a son, Ed Jr., who is eighteen years old now. Momma and Clarine like each other because they can sit around and share baby mama drama stories about their husbands who could care less about them. I do not know who made up that term "baby mama drama," but I think they were talking about Momma and Aunt Clarine when they made it up. They are definitely not good mothers and their lives are filled with drama. Both of them will do anything to try to hurt their husbands, who finally had enough of them and their mess. At least Ed Jr. was never hungry, because Uncle Ed took Aunt Clarine to court and proved that she was an unfit mother. Then he moved them both to Alaska to make sure she did not see Ed Jr. too often. Daddy was getting ready to take Momma to court for the third time to fight for custody of me when he was called to Iraq. He missed two court dates because of the stupid war.
I think Daddy felt so helpless after he had to stop living with Momma and me.
After a while Daddy just stopped sending us money and sent it directly to Granddaddy Joseph. Daddy knew Granddaddy would do right by us. When the checks went to Granddaddy's, we did too. Momma found out that Daddy was mailing the checks to Granddaddy's and we moved in with him the next week. Daddy planned it that way. He knows Momma well. He knew that Granddaddy would always take care of me and tell him Momma's every move. The checks came like clockwork from Daddy. He always sent me a letter with the money. I still have most of the letters in my old blue suitcase that Daddy left at the house when he moved to Raleigh.
My dear son Joseph,
How are you? Daddy is doing fine. This war is hard on me, and it is harder to be away from you. I miss seeing you and knowing that I am a short drive away. There is nothing like seeing your face.
I asked your momma about your coming to live with me when I come home and she said no for the hundredth time.
I feel that you need me and I will always need you. I need to go to work knowing that you had breakfast, and I need to go to sleep knowing that you had a great dinner.
I know that Granddaddy Joseph is doing the best he can, but he is old and should not have to raise my son. I want to raise you. I want to love you and show you how to be a man.
Son, it does not look like this war will end anytime soon. I watch CNN every day trying to keep up with what is going on back home, but it is not the same as being there. I just continue to fight to stay alive, so that I can come home to you.
Three days after I got that letter, Granddaddy was dead. Granddaddy was dead from a heart attack. He died in the place he loved most, First Branches Baptist Church, over on Monroe Street. Momma had a hangover so she had not gone to church with us that day. I was there when Granddaddy looked out at the congregation from the pulpit and started to sing his favorite song, "Amazing Grace." But nothing came out of his mouth.
I was in the fourth row and saw him grab his chest and fall to the floor. He never woke up. I rode in the ambulance with Granddaddy Joseph and Deacon Willie, but Granddaddy did not know that we were there. The doctors said he was dead when he hit the floor.
Aunt Shirley and Jasmine had not gone to church that Sunday because they had just got back in town from New York, but they met me at the hospital as soon as I called them.
Momma came later with her new boyfriend at the time, Troy, who she had met at Target. She was hollering and crying all over the hospital like a crazy person. I was the only person there who knew she had been cursing at poor Granddaddy all week. She broke his heart. I was happy that Granddaddy did not see her with Troy, because he had been very tired of her moving around and changing men so much.
Momma could care less about Troy. She had just hooked up with him so he would pay the bills that Daddy's child-support checks didn't cover. Every time Troy went to work at Target, Momma called Daddy to bug him for more money and ask him to take her back. She would leave Daddy messages to call her about me. Poor Momma would show Troy how many times Daddy had called her cell phone, trying to make Troy jealous. The truth is, I think that if she were not my mother Daddy would never call Momma again in life.
To make matters worse, Momma found out about Pauline. She is a great artist with a nice art gallery downtown. She is as pretty as the pictures that she paints. So beautiful that she takes my breath away. Of course, I could never say that around Momma. I have to pretend I do not like Pauline to keep Momma happy. Truth is, she is a nice lady. She tried to stay in touch with me after Daddy went to Iraq, but she got tired of Momma's drama and stopped calling.
Just before Daddy left, I took some pictures of me, Pauline, and Daddy in the mountains. I made the mistake of taking them home, and Momma found them. The next thing I knew she had cut them up and mailed them to Pauline's Art Gallery. After that happened, Pauline knew for sure that Momma was crazy. Daddy and Pauline are getting married when he comes home, and I am glad. I love Momma, but I pray every night that she will get off drugs and be a real woman like Pauline. When she is talking junk about Pauline I want to scream, "Shut up, Momma! Don't you see her teeth are not green? Don't you see she cares about me and she is not homeless? Don't you see she is home with her family on the holidays, not begging other people to invite her to their house? Just shut up!"
Even Granddaddy liked Pauline. Granddaddy liked Daddy, too, and said he was a good man and a good father. They talked together a lot before Daddy was deployed. Daddy knows that Granddaddy is dead, but he thinks that Momma and I are still living in Granddaddy's house. Daddy has no idea that we are living in a shelter, but I guess he will find out when he calls Granddaddy's house and the phone is disconnected. For a few months Momma had the calls forwarded to her cell phone because she was never at home, but now the cell phone and the line at Granddaddy's are disconnected. Daddy will call Aunt Shirley when he cannot reach me and she will come to help us. Momma does not have a dime left from her illegal welfare check, and Daddy's check will not come until the first of the month -- two weeks from now. I am scared to call my aunt myself because she is sure to call the Department of Social Services.
I wish Momma would help herself before they take me away from her. I cannot let that happen, because she has no one else. Who will take care of her? What if she is not better before I graduate from high school? If she is not better, I guess I am supposed to skip college and get a job taking care of her and sorry Aunt Clarine. I guess that's what Momma thinks, anyway.
If only she had saved the money Granddaddy left us in his will. Granddaddy did not have much money, because he gave most of it to the church. But he left Momma twenty thousand dollars and his house. All she had to do was pay the house note of $340 a month out of the money he left her, and the house would have been paid for in two years.
Granddaddy worked all his life to buy a home for us, and Momma lost it over a few thousand dollars. She never paid one house note and we had to move. At least we moved in August and I didn't have to change schools in the middle of the school year like I've had to before.
Aunt Shirley and Momma had just started speaking again when Aunt Shirley came by and saw the foreclosure sign in the yard at Granddaddy's. Aunt Shirley said she would catch up the payments until she realized that the note was six months behind, plus taxes and insurance. Then she offered to buy the house from Momma, but Momma wanted her sister to pay the six months in mortgage and keep the house in Momma's name. Aunt Shirley refused, and we were evicted while Aunt Shirley was away at a lawyers' conference. Now Aunt Shirley is trying to buy the house back from the bank.
Momma is so comfortable here in this shelter in what she calls the community. She sits around with people who live in this ghetto too, and she brags about being back in the community. I just want to scream. This is not "the community." This is the ghetto. One day she was talking to Clarine on the phone about their "community" and I could not take it anymore. "Momma, stop it!" I said as she lit up another cigarette and started calling Pauline names because she saw an article in the newspaper about her opening a second art gallery. I do not know what came over me, but I grabbed the telephone out of her hand and started screaming.
"Just look out the window at that drug dealer pushing dope to that twelve-year-old boy."
Momma slapped me so hard that I dropped the phone.
"Boy, do not touch this phone again." I do not know what hurt the most, the slap or watching her make a fool out of herself.
She did not talk to me for two days and I was okay with that. I just wanted her to wake up.
Doesn't Momma see what I see when she looks out the window of the shelter? This place is all run-down and the streets are filled with drug addicts and their dealers, people who Momma calls her friends.
I wonder if she knows that I am afraid to walk to the store to get a loaf of bread and that I sleep with a knife under my pillow in case someone breaks into the room we call home.
In our room are a mattress and a hot plate that we managed to grab before the mortgage company put padlocks on Granddaddy's front door.
The only good thing about being at this shelter is that I am in a school district that buses some of the students to Dulles High, which is two blocks from Duke University here in Durham. It's in an area of town protected from all the things I have to face every day in my neighborhood. The teachers at Dulles High seem serious about education. I think that most teachers at Lincoln were great, but they were afraid of the students, who were basically running the school. Dulles High has none of that. Maybe they can protect me from Momma's mess. This school is too far away from the shelter for her to come over here and yell at these folks and embarrass me like she always does. I just pray that Momma does not mess this up for me.
"Good morning, Ms. Flood. I have been waiting to meet you and Joseph. We are delighted to have him here," Ms. Adams says.
"Oh, you can call me Betty. I ain't old enough for anybody to call me Ms. Flood."
Ms. Adams barely acknowledges Momma making a fool of herself. She just looks at me and smiles.
"Welcome to our campus, Joseph. I understand that you are a good student and that you like tennis."
Before I can answer, Momma is acting the fool.
"Tennis! Who told you that? Don't be talking to him about no tennis. My boy is going to play basketball and go to the pros. I can see him now, girl, and I am going to be Gucci down."
Ms. Adams looks at Momma like she is a man from Mars. Her face says,Oh, now I know what the problem is.She smiles a fake smile and says, "Joseph, go inside and take one of the empty seats." Then she turns back to Momma.
"Well, there are many professional tennis players. Besides, with his good grades he can do anything he wants to do and be whatever he wants to be. He does not have to play sports."
"Oh, hell na'll, he in the wrong classroom. You trying to turn him against basketball."
I hang my head and walk away in total shame.
"See you later, dude," Momma yells down the hall as Ms. Adams tells me again to go into the classroom and find a seat.
I know she does not say much to Momma after that, because within minutes Ms. Adams is back in her classroom. I guess she just left Momma standing in the hallway acting like a fool the way most people do when they are tired of her mouth.
I wish Momma had a job to go to. That way she would never come over here.
Every school that I attend becomes Momma's life until people see her for who she really is and then no one wants her around. She has not had a full-time job in years, so she is at every basketball game and every tennis match when she is not high.
I was fine with her being involved at Lincoln High until she agreed to collect the money for T-shirts for the basketball players. She did collect the money, and just like always she messed things up.
During the first game, Mr. Faison saw Daddy and approached him on the basketball bleachers.
"Sir, your wife collected thirty dollars from me and twenty other parents weeks ago for T-shirts for our players. The parents decided we did not want T-shirts after all, and we wanted the money back to buy snacks to sell at the games instead, but no one has been reimbursed by Betty. We have asked her several times to give us the money back."
Daddy was so embarrassed. I was injured that night and was sitting with Daddy before the game started as he made it clear to Mr. Faison that Momma was no longer his wife. Then he paid him the money that Momma owed him. Pauline was there too. She did not say anything. She just looked embarrassed for me.
The kids teased me for the rest of that week about my mother taking the T-shirt money and laughed at Momma when they saw her. I was so hurt that she would steal from my classmates' parents. I was embarrassed to even go to school the next day. I just kept my head down until the kids found something new to talk about.
The most hurtful part was that it did not bother Momma at all that she had embarrassed me.
Copyright © 2008 by Shelia P. Moses
Excerpted from Joseph by Shelia P. Moses
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.