Young Michael comes to understand the value of kindness and love in the real world
“Let’s take it from the top again, Michael. This time, try to be a little louder, okay?”
“But my throat hurts,” came the low whine although a quick glance at Joseph had him changing his tune quickly. “…a little.”
“What was that?” Berry peered through the thick pane of glass with a smile on his face, wondering what his little protégé was mumbling to himself about now.
“No…nothing,” came the chirpy reply, and taking a deep breath, Michael cleared his throat (fighting back a grimace at the soreness he felt) before closing his eyes to concentrate. “I’m ready now.”
“Excellent,” Berry enthused, snapping his fingers before pointing to the mixer. “From the top again, okay? Playback!”
As the first chords of ‘Got to be There’ began to play, Michael tried to block out the presence and image of Joseph who had been leaning against the wall in the stuffy studio watching his performance for the past hour and an half. They were doing the final mixing for the single which was to be released in his upcoming solo album and besides being nervous as hell; Michael had been forced to work twice as hard to make the songs as good as the adults wanted it to be.
He could feel his throat muscles protest with each high note he was made to hit, aware that his voice was beginning to change and that the powers that be wanted to capture the magic of his tenor before it finally gave way to puberty. Technically, he was now fifteen – a time when his body was going through so many changes and awkward phases, he could hardly think straight at times. And still, he found himself cringing when he had to lie about his age to those who asked…sticking with the ‘I’m still thirteen’ routine when he was sure many were beginning to doubt that.
He was the only one in the studio…well besides Joseph and Suzanne, who was smiling at him in encouragement as she tapped her foot gently in rhythm. Michael really liked the young woman, who he regarded as a big sister since LaToya and Rebbie couldn’t be on the road with them. He knew Jackie and Tito sometimes spoke about her body and her looks behind her back, but they still regarded her as a mentor and cool friend. Speaking of his brothers, Michael was sure they were having fun somewhere right about now; either playing basketball or going to the few night clubs they could visit without being noticed or bombarded by overzealous fans.
Michael was still trying to recover from their last tour stop in Chicago. Having to deal with thousands of screaming girls, many of whom were trying to claw and rip his clothes (that was before one of the guards had literally carried him away) just so they could get a piece of him. It had frightened him…still did in a way, even though he loved the fans dearly. Without them, he knew the Jackson 5 wouldn’t be what they were today.
No matter what Joseph or even Berry said.
“Great job, Michael!” came the booming voice as he finished the song with a flourish and a smile of relief. Berry was clapping his hands as he stepped out of the sound room and into the main studio. Ignoring the cold look thrown his way from Joseph, the Motown owner gave the teen a bear hug of excitement.
“This album is going to be a hit. I just know it,” Berry enthused as he tapped Michael’s nose gently. With a quick sly glance at Joseph, noticing that the Jackson patriarch was currently engaged in conversation with Bobby, Berry slid a fifty dollar bill into Michael’s palm with a knowing wink. “Just a little something extra. Buy yourself some candy or ice cream, eh?”
Michael’s grin widened. “Thank you!” He hid the money in his pocket quickly as Joseph walked up to them, forcing him to step away from Berry.
Suzanne approached with a cup of hot cocoa, urging Michael to drink. “That should help your throat a little.”
“Mmm…delicious,” the boy gushed in pleasure as the warmth of the liquid soothed him in more ways than one.
“But of course,” the woman said, laughing. “I always make the best cocoa. Ready to go back to the hotel?”
“You bet. I’m tired,” Michael confessed as he began to walk out of the studio, waving to the other adults who hailed him in greeting – all saying they’d see him tomorrow to record the next track of the album. He shrugged into his jacket, idly listening to Suzanne and Joseph talking about their upcoming appearances and shows. The woman was actually reading through a thick black diary as they walked out of the building and into the cold Detroit evening air.
“…on Tuesday they have a photo shoot with Sixteen Magazine and later on an interview at a local radio station. On Wednesday, they have to be at the Carol Burnett show for a taping and then later on another photo shoot with Teen people…oh and then I booked another interview with Sylvia Jones and on Thursday…”
Michael sighed inwardly, sinking against the plush leather seat of the limo and closed his eyes. There were just so many things to do and so little time to do them. He felt the seat dip beside him and stiffened involuntarily as Joseph’s scent assailed his senses. He could hear Suzanne still outside speaking to someone and held his breath, hoping that Joseph wouldn’t say anything to him this evening. He hadn’t complained much and besides, his throat really had been…
“Give it to me.”
Michael’s lashes flew open and he slid a wary but slightly fearful glance at his father’s profile. Joseph was pretending to read a magazine (with ironically the Osmonds on the cover) as he spoke.
“What you talkin’ about, Joseph?” came the meek question, his heart pounding harder and faster as the money seemed to burn a whole in his pocket.
“The money, Michael. Don’t make me ask you again,” came the low reply. “Hand it over. What I tell you about taking money from Berry like that?”
“But it’s extra…”
“I don’t care if it’s extra or not, now hand it over and maybe I’ll give you some change.”
Michael scowled and pressed himself tighter against the door. “It’s my money,” he replied in as strong a voice as he could manage. “I earned it, Joseph.”
“Boy, don’t make me…”
“Do it,” came the low hiss, his hands sliding slowly towards the door handle. “I dare you, Joseph.”
The older Jackson was livid, his features turning a dull shade of red as he glanced quickly towards where Suzanne was still speaking to someone, before lifting his hand to face his troublesome son. “Oh, you’re gonna get it…what the…?!”
Before his hand could make its descent on the boy’s shoulder, Michael – quick as ever – had opened the door and was already running as fast as his legs could carry him down the road.
“Michael! You get back here, boy!” came the thunderous bellow from his father, but Michael was too frightened and angry to care. He dashed down the narrow street, glad that evening was fast falling as no one would be able to recognize him, especially with the heavy winter coat he was wearing.
After five minutes, he glanced over his shoulder fearfully, wondering if Joseph would be hot on his heels, but he was faced with a relatively quiet street and the realization that…
…he had no idea where he was.
He slowed his feet and sank onto a doorstep, biting his lower lip hard and wiping his face quickly, embarrassed and ashamed to see he had been crying all this time.
It just wasn’t fair.
It wasn’t fair that he had been working so hard all day and when he was rewarded for it, Joseph always had to take it away from him. His weekly allowance was pitiful and just enough for him to buy just a few pops and add to his private savings account – something Miss. Ross had suggested he do for a rainy day. All the money they made from all the shows and tours and appearances, almost always went to Joseph and no one had complained much over the years. It just wasn’t fair.
Getting to his feet, Michael decided to walk around on his own for a while. It was rare for him to get an opportunity to see anywhere without the threat of bodyguards or fans mobbing him. No one knew who he was…yet at least, and he could appreciate the city for what it was. As he made a turn down the corner, he was faced with a derelict sight – something that wasn’t all too uncommon as Gary hadn’t exactly been paradise. The familiar sights of old men sitting on doorsteps, or some homeless people huddling around a fire to keep warm , tugged his heartstrings. Coupled with the familiar smells of hot evening meals being cooked and the low sounds of The Temptations drifting from radios perched on windowsills, made him nostalgic for home. He noticed a few children keeping themselves entertained by kicking around a half-deflated soccer ball…and a few others playing stick ball with plain ol’ wooden sticks and a dirty baseball.
He felt his eyes well again with tears and he took a deep breath, wondering what would happen if he joined them. Would they recognize him and start treating him differently? How would he be able to join them anyway when he was dressed like…?
“Hey, mister. Hey, mister.”
It was a light tug on his jacket and he looked down and into the dirty, but smiling face of a kid about eight years old or so. Considering it was pretty damn cold, this boy was only dressed in a t-shirt and a pair of ragged jeans, with sneakers that showed the tips of his toes.
“Got a dollar, mister?” the boy asked with a toothy grin. “Got a dollar, mister?”
“Jeremy!” came the harsh call from a woman walking towards them rapidly. “You get away from that young man, right now, you hear me? I told you, you don’t go walking up to strangers you don’t know, you hear me!”
“It’s okay,” Michael was saying, but the woman wasn’t paying much attention. She looked to be in her twenties, but dressed just as shabbily as her boy. Cradled in one arm was a baby girl of about nine months, who was crying with snot running down her chin. Toddling beside her were two other children, all in similar states of poverty as they clung to their mother.
“I’m really sorry about this,” she was saying. “My boy…he don’t know when to stop. We’ll let you go, mister.” She turned to the sniffling Jeremy and cuffed him in reprimand. “Now let’s go home. I swear, I’mma…”
The woman looked up and stared blankly at the fifty dollar bill glaring at her.
“Take it,” Michael urged with a warm smile. “I don’t really need it.”
The woman glanced at him warily – years of mistrust, hope and disbelief filling her brown eyes. “You a pimp?” she finally asked, unsure of what this young boy’s plan was.
Michael looked confused and then blushed and tried not to laugh as he realized what she was implying. “No. I’m not. Really. I don’t need it.”
He reached for her free hand and shoved the bill into it. Without thinking twice about what he was doing, he shrugged out of his jacket and wrapped it around Jeremy. He peeled off his sweater and draped it around one of the other children’s shoulder and wondering what else he could give, he finally decided to take off his hat and gave it to the last child, while giving his gloves to the baby to play with.
“There,” he said with a clap of his hands. “You should be warm now, and use the money to buy some food for them, okay?” He patted the little children’s heads gently and turned to walk away, now uncomfortable at the look of gratitude and tears that were filling the woman’s eyes.
“Hey…hey there. Boy.”
Michael stiffened and hoped she hadn’t recognized him. He looked over his shoulder slowly, but was only rewarded with the happy hoots of the children playing with his clothes and the woman wiping her tears.
“God…He sent you to us, didn’t he?” she finally said. “I thank you, mister. Since my husband died, I ain’t got nobody. This…this is the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for us. I thank you, and God bless you. God bless you. God bless…” She couldn’t finish as the enormity of her situation overwhelmed her.
Michael longed to go back to hug her, but decided he had overstayed his welcome. The other people on the street were beginning to notice them and he lowered his head, shoving his cold hands into the pockets of his jeans, to stride away as quickly as he could.
He still didn’t know where he was going, but luckily, he didn’t have to walk too far as the sound of a car screeching to a halt beside him and the subsequent cries of ‘There he is!’ had him jolting back to reality.
He barely felt Suzanne’s warm hug and her panicked voice of ‘Are you okay?! What happened to your clothes?! Oh my God, he’s freezing!” as he was put into the car and quickly bundled with a blanket. Michael pressed himself against the door, but not before meeting Joseph’s steely gaze.
Father and son remained in the staring match for several long seconds, before Michael turned away with a small smile of victory on his lips. He knew Joseph wouldn’t bug him for the money again, even though he didn’t have it any longer. For knowing that it had been put to good use, was all the reward Michael could ever want.
He knew he’d keep those smiling faces of Jeremy, his siblings and the heartfelt prayer of gratitude, from his mother, in his heart forever.
Sometimes, it really was the littlest of things that made the biggest difference.