by Melissa Valentine
I was busy getting my hair straightened while the rest of my family was viewing Junior’s body. I only saw pictures. The top of his head was wrapped up like a turban where the bullet had gone through to his brain and killed him. He had been running. He fell on 36th and West. One of his last breaths spent accepting Jesus from a neighborhood woman who was the only one brave enough and swift enough and close enough to be at his side. He had run through backyards, hopping over fences. I know he was used to running, but the terror he must have felt, not knowing on which street they would find him. If not today, then tomorrow, or the next day.
And what had he done to be hunted like an animal? This I could not face. Why didn’t he flee, head for Alabama, change his name, save himself? Maybe he could have survived in another life, in some other disguise. In this life he chose the disguise of gangster, but underneath was a sweet boy, a sweet, lost boy. Oakland was his home, we were his family, and Shannon was his girl. He belonged here.
In that part of town gunshots provided the background music, as commonplace as ice cream trucks, and therefore the ambulance took its time. They didn’t think of them with hearts, with families. Doing so would require compassion and humanity. At Highland hospital—the homicide hospital—a desensitized doctor came to the room where they tell families that their family members are dead. I prayed to the deepest part of myself for him to make it. “He is not going to make it,” the doctor said. Then he said something about a vegetable and his sorrow, but that was all I could hear. It rang in my ears and the heaving cries of my family were echoes, all of it ricocheting in some other realm of existence. Where was I? And more importantly, who was I?
At the salon, I was distracted by the hairdresser’s drunkenness. I had never seen a working drunk before. My hair smoked underneath the hot iron until the tiny room was hazy. The woman waved away the smoke and took sips of her sweating soda cup full of ice and alcohol while she waited for the iron to get hot again.
It was Shannon’s idea to get my hair straightened at a shop. Since Junior died, she had spent every night in my bed with me. I let her in. I was sad, too. Unintentionally, during the night we would spoon in my twin bed. She slept in a thong and a tee shirt. I never asked her why or told her to stop, but I often woke to find her bare ass cuddled against my pelvis. We were both sad. Sometimes she woke up screaming or whimpering softly and I calmed her. In the morning she told me her dreams. They’d be about Junior.
In those weeks just after he died, Shannon watched me. Sometimes it felt like a mother’s watch, sometimes like a sister’s, and sometimes it was distinctly like a child’s. She was looking for the strength to not crack open. While the drunk smoked my head, Shannon watched me like someone who stares into traffic; we looked into a large mirror, too afraid to look at ourselves, we looked at my hair instead.
“Do you like it?” Shannon asked.
“I look different.”
I was different. Now I was someone who had been spared. I had to go on living. It was a burden, especially in those first months after he died. Now I was someone who, no matter what, had to exist with a missing piece, a deep sadness hidden to the outside. Shannon’s remedy was to focus on the outside: fix our hair. My remedy was to slice up my flesh until I bled. On the nights I slept alone, I surrounded myself with photos of him and, as if I was a witch conducting a ritual, some form of sacrifice, I cut into my thighs with an exact-o knife until they bled. I carved a heart around a scar I’d gotten during one of our fights. I bled, I cried, but I felt nothing.
We looked passed ourselves and focused on my hair. It shined, falling down over my shoulders, golden brown. I could pass for someone beautiful. We both knew that someone was pulling a drawer that contained Junior’s cold body out to be viewed, everyone weeping around him in an eerie refrigerated room. A turban-like cloth held the fragile bullet-wounded flesh of his head together. I couldn’t bear to be with the dead. I knew he wasn’t there. We were looking at the site where he used to live, now just a puffy, cold, animal version, caught and refrigerated. I didn’t want to see him that way. The reality of what lay under that turban haunted me. He was a fallen soldier in a war. How did this happen? What lay under his turban was evidence of the war, evidence of the violence I heard about but never thought would affect me. Black boys were being murdered every day. I thought Junior was too smart, better. I thought somehow we were better than this ending. They aired the story of his murder in a ten-second news clip, his face on the television, his face in the newspaper. All of Oakland saw and went on making their dinner. We all saw, everyday, and went on making our dinner.
I thought we were survivors but I realized being a survivor is an illusion; it’s a story you tell yourself so you can keep on going. How could I go on? We, my siblings and I, had huddled together when times were rough. We told each other we had made it, we had each other at least; we weren’t alone. Well, one of us did not make it. What happens to the story now? How could I live with these people who killed him, neglected him, did not teach him what it was to be a man so that he had to go in search of it? And they were killing me too, just more slowly, because I was becoming a woman. This world kills black women more slowly. My parents. Oh, my parents. They were shells. Empty. How could I go on living? Who would teach me to be a woman? I was afraid. Who was I now that one of us hadn’t made it? I didn’t want to end up lost. Being lost meant death.
What a vicious place. I wanted to get out. I was different alright. I wanted to get out.
You are never ready. Junior had been yanked away from us and we could not find him. I talked to him and he did not answer. I began to float, not because I was free, but because I had nothing inside to anchor me. I was not aware of having bones or blood or a heart, I was just vaguely aware of existing, and even that felt wrong. It felt wrong to have the right to live when he’d been taken. My body no longer belonged to me, it belonged to the deep shame of the spared. I became a mild, bleary-eyed version of myself, the only emotion I could feel was despair and I was bound to it as if doing so would bring him back.
I wanted to see ghosts.
The days leading up to his funeral were urgent, critical. Soon he would be gone forever, body and all. There had to be some action we could take. There wasn’t much time.
In certain neighborhoods where these street wars go on with black boys as their soldiers, you see spots on the sidewalks with little teddy bears and crosses on them. These are little black boy graves, all over the streets. They say RIP and they have the boy’s affectionate name and a photo of his face. Junior’s grave site was an entire wall along a freeway exit that led up to a traffic light; the sidewalk led only to the freeway so no pedestrians walked there, only him, running desperately from bullets, hopping fences and running through backyards, ending up there. We had an entire wall and sidewalk to dedicate to him, across from which a block of houses sat; people probably watched us, but we didn’t care. We arrived on a mission, with giant graffiti pens and markers, spray paint, photos. We memorized poems and bible verses. I wrote him a letter begging him to come back.
I wanted to see ghosts.
There were seven of us. We were missing one. Yet I could feel him there, wiping our tears and gently offering us hugs, a whisper telling me I would survive this. Being a survivor was not all it was cracked up to be.
Someone had called the police on this family of vandals. A patrol car pulled up and told us we had to leave, that we could be arrested and fined, that we were defacing state property. We explained that this was the site where our brother and son had been murdered. He shook his head. “I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to leave,” he said. This was the kind of thing no one wanted to see. Yes, we were vandalizing state property, but we were also making art, a large-scale public grave for all to see who had died here, for all to see and acknowledge that many die here. No one wanted to see this evidence of war, evidence of these boys having been loved. The wall was quickly washed by the state of California and slowly decorative vines began to grow between cracks of cement and everyone who walked or drove by went back to making their dinner.
On the day of his funeral I felt guilty all night for not having touched his cold body and getting my hair straightened instead. I didn’t recognize myself in straight hair. Who was I? Not looking like myself, it was easier to disassociate, ask myself: who am I now? I didn’t sleep much, but when I did, he was alive. The funeral was nothing but wet eyes and wrinkled brows. A clashing sea of black and white and brown sorrow. These were our people, and Junior’s people. Junior’s best friend Marcus walked up to me and hugged me. I could feel his bulletproof vest against my chest. He had come to grieve for his friend on the white side of town, but was afraid he’d be shot. I looked around and saw the blur of the crowd beyond my watery eyes. A young black girl I’d seen before at school filmed the whole thing and narrated her version of the events. In the lobby where we’d hung family photos, his street friends looked at the photos as if seeing Junior for the first time. White boy Chris came from this mixed up place where ghetto boys and girls and white Middle-aged Quakers from the Berkeley Meeting all knew some part of him and equally felt the devastation of the shortness of his life. Our old neighbors Julia and Josh came up to me with lips sealed, arms open. What do you say? Everyone opened their arms and was sorry. That’s all I could see through my wet eyes—a bunch of open, sorry arms. I was angry at Junior for choosing these people over us. Over me. I felt abandoned by him. There was no one left to protect me, I would have to protect myself. He had been wrong about them; none of them were his friends. I was mad at him for not knowing. Why hadn’t he known? He wanted a life outside of our house, outside of our family. He ran away fiercely.
Shannon clung to me. She kept sleeping in my bed, seeking me in her thong. I talked to my friends about Shannon and her thong. They said she was probably just sad and missed my brother and I was the closet thing to him, not to worry, it wasn’t weird. Then, gradually she started to disappear. When we all started to be able to live and be sad at the same time. For many of us this was our first loss and we would have to learn how to bury it and go on.
Junior was buried in the most beautiful spot in Oakland. You can see the entire city. He is between two redwood trees. The preacher—is that what they are called? The ones that speak at funerals? We didn’t know him. He was an employee of the funeral home and we didn’t know anyone else, so we let him say the necessary religious words. “Ashes, to Ashes,” he said. I screamed then. I wanted to get in the casket. I really did. And if that preacher man hadn’t grabbed me and consoled me in a way I thought was inappropriate, I would have. I pushed his hands off me as hard as I could and clutched my sister Vivian so tight we could have joined. Everyone and their sorrow. They were so sorry.
While I convulsed and heaved and joined with my sister, Shannon looked down at the grassy ground. So did my parents, depleted. No one appreciated the view from where we stood, the fresh air, the birds, the trees. With the absence of Junior, there was no sound, no time, no air, no light. After the service, we scattered. Cornelius and our cousin promised they were going to “find that mother fucker,” the killer. More violence. Cornelius had already beat someone up for flipping him off at a red light. He’d left his car running in the middle of the street and walked up to the man and punched him through his open window. I sat on the grass hill near Junior’s redwood trees and started at space, unable to see the view in front of me. The bulletproof vests left. The Quakers left. Everyone left and took their sorrow with them. Shannon sat on the curb above me, also staring at nothing.
When I saw Shannon again, she was pregnant. At a grocery store near my high school I saw her coming out escorted by two of her girlfriends. She had my brother’s baby in there she said. I was an aunt. Whispers began about the medical miracle in Shannon’s belly. How many months is she? Why did she take so long to tell us? How can this be?
Jewel was born eleven months after Junior died, healthy and hairy. She had a full head of black hair, which everyone noted. Even her arms and legs were fuzzy with soft black hair like a little, perfect monkey baby. Shannon could not hear the voices that whispered outside the hospital room where flowers and “It’s a Girl” balloons surrounded her. The baby was passed around the room and everyone got a chance to behold this perfect hairy child. Shannon smiled, in a daze.
The voices spun: Good hair, too. She’s the right color. She looks Asian though. Look at her eyes. She’s so hairy. Just look at all that hair. She looks just like a little Chinese baby. Maybe she’s Chinese. Well, she’s the right color. Not real black. Not too black. Good hair. Nice hair. Lots of it. But Chinese. But the color is right. We’ll have to wait and see. A real cutie pie. Smart too. Like her daddy. Alert. How can this be? What can we say? What can we do? This is a tragedy. This is a miracle.
Melissa Valentine is a writer and acquisitions editor living in Oakland, CA. She received her MFA in nonfiction from Mills College. In 2013, Melissa was a finalist for Glimmertrain’s Family Matters writing contest. Her work has appeared in Sassafras Literary Magazine. She is currently at work completing her memoir, The Names of All the Flowers.