a story about some of the travails of an inner-city family
We would often sit on the back porch and ponder how we ended up where we were. When my cousin Joe-Ray and I were small children, our parents would often sit us together on this very same porch due to the unproven belief that somehow it was easier to watch us as a group rather than watch us individually. I never believed it and you couldn’t prove it to me. They didn’t watch us as individuals or as a group. We watched one another and we watched them; similar to spiders watching flies. Then we’d gather at the park and try to forget the whole thing.
The day would start out well enough with the men either playing basketball or cards, and the women either carrying homemade food from the trunk of the car or something store-bought to be served at the park bench. As the evening wore on, a few beers, bottles, or kegs later, and little by little the timber of their discussions would rise; the words and language would slip; the feelings would get hurt; and then the words would sharpen and someone would leave wounded, spewing hate and discontent over their shoulders as they exited with squirming children tucked under their arms, pinned to their shoulders, or propelled forward with shoves or repeated smacks to the back of the head.
The next morning we would rise early for church, again calm and serene at first, and later crying with swollen faces and bruised egos from the battle to get dressed and arrive on time; never exactly on time, but never too late. Shame on the family that arrived last or missed the sermon all together; no one wanted to be them. That was more shameful than being inappropriately dressed; too short, too loud, or too out of season.
During the service, pouted glances and squinted eyes or pursed lips and bug-eyes would be exchanged by the parents, only to be broken into wide-toothed grins and guffaws by the end of Sunday lunch. It was as predictable as sunset. It was the way we lived. It was also the way we died or buried our dead.
One Saturday, my Aunt Doris let it slip that Uncle Henry-Ray owed some money to some other dude in the neighborhood. She didn’t mean to blab, but when she’d had a few and was getting on Uncle Henry about why he shouldn’t be gambling with the dice, it just sort of came out. We kids knew it was a problem because the whole park went quiet; at least it seemed like the whole park. A whole day and a night appeared to pass before the low murmurs started again. Uncle Henry-Ray would have turned red if he could have, but instead, he just grabbed Aunt Doris by the arm and they left. They didn’t take any of their dishes of food or anything; not even their kids, Dodo and Ray-Ray. We figured the kids would be sleeping at our house that night. Even then we didn’t walk that far alone and no one wanted to drop by their house until that Armageddon has passed.
The next day, we expected to see Aunt Doris and Uncle Henry-Ray around the usual time and the usual place, so when they didn’t show by lunchtime, we were afraid things may have gotten out of hand and neither would show until the bruises had healed; at least, that’s what all the parents said under their breath. It didn’t turn out that way. Evidently, they had gotten home and had a row about things, made up, had a few drinks and then went for a drive. The combination of alcohol, driving, and light poles didn’t add up too well. The car blew up and left them unrecognizable. We never dwelled on who was driving; though we all knew Aunt Doris didn’t drive that well and Uncle Henry-Ray didn’t let her drive when he was in the car. Only Dodo and Ray-Ray got that singular experience. Our parents wouldn’t let us ride with either of them because Aunt Doris was dangerous sober and Uncle Henry-Ray was always drunk.
It was a double funeral, with closed caskets of course, and doubly horrible for all the crying and all the lying. If I hadn’t known who was supposed to be in those caskets, I wouldn’t have known who they were talking about. It was the first time I knew you could lie in church and not have the ceiling fall in or the cross fall off the wall. It would be a long time before I understood what had just happened, my fantasy reality had just been destroyed; people you knew did die and others then lied about them.
My cousin Joe-Ray and I lost track of one another for a few years, each of us running with different gangs on our different sides of the tracks. Our parents and family chose to not discuss what we did. Some of them were customers…for a discount. Joe-Ray and I only saw one another at family gatherings, and as the years wore on, that seemed to happen less and less frequently. It was as though some type of glue had been lost.
It was years later when I saw Joe-Ray on the streets. I’d heard he’d risen in his gang of thugs, and why not? I had risen in mine. I was actually more or less, the leader. We were all high school dropouts; sort of low-rent drug dealers, mainly supplying poor folks on our side of the tracks with cheap drugs to forget their woes and dull their reality a little, and of course, line our pockets. Even in the ghetto, we can delude ourselves. We even allowed ourselves to believe it had always been a ghetto.
Joe-Ray was selling drugs on his side of town, so when I got word the leader of his gang wanted to meet, being the opportunist that I was, I said “sure.” We were to meet in neutral territory with just a couple of our closest soldiers and iron out some minor territorial conflicts.
Both sides were armed with knives and anything sharp, so any use of force and no one would have walked out alive. We weren’t into guns back then. That was so "west coast.” We ironed out our borders in short order and proceeded our separate ways. As we parted, Lieutenant Joe-Ray, winked that he would catch up with me at the next family gathering in a couple of weeks. I didn’t think too much about it. I was so distracted and relieved no blood had been shed that night that I didn’t pay much attention to anything except breathing.
Since the death of Aunt Doris and Uncle Henry-Ray, we, as a family, had worked really hard to not have our get-togethers end in violence, so there was no alcohol during the picnic and the gambling was non-monetary; just for fun and bragging rights. Things also ended before dusk. That was a requirement; we had to get the young kids off the streets before dark when the world changed; a world changed by people like me. The gatherings were actually fun, though, a little too rare to be completely comfortable. Even so, I was looking forward to not looking over my shoulder and humbly hanging out with people that I really knew.
A couple of weeks later, as I rounded the corner a couple blocks from the park, I spotted Joe-Ray walking towards me on the other side of the street, obviously going to the same place. I yelled at him and ran to catch up, though it’s a little hard to run with your pants cinched up on your thighs. As I caught up and reached over to hug him like we did in the old days, I heard a popping sound, I felt cold hard metal against my stomach and the next thing I remember was hot metallic pain shooting through me as I lost consciousness wondering what was happening.
I woke up in the hospital several weeks later with drains from every part of my body, including the ones the doctors made. I had been shot nine times, including once in the back, and repeatedly told I was lucky to be alive. How could I be lucky living in this new world and knowing what I painfully knew? I had a tracheotomy, so I couldn’t speak, but I had nothing to say to anybody anyway after they told me I couldn’t walk. When I realized I couldn’t feel anything below my upper chest, I just freaked. I was arrested for obstruction of justice and had extra years added to my sentence because I wouldn't talk. Being ever the opportunist, I had a kilo of cocaine on me when I was shot. Some of it entered my system from the gunshots, so they got me for use of an illegal substance and possession of a controlled substance for sale. I had never used drugs in my life. I was convicted and on my way to rot in prison before my wounds healed. I never told the police who shot me and in reality, they didn’t care. They probably regretted I hadn’t been killed. I didn’t know why I was protecting him. I didn’t even know if he meant to shoot me. Someone would have thought nine gunshots showed deliberate intent, but I knew it might also have meant indecision and panic.
Eight years into my twelve year bid, I received a visitor. I had completed physical rehab a few years earlier and was just now beginning to believe I could walk. I knew my visitor would be family; they always were, but I was stunned to see Joe-Ray sitting in the visit yard; a little bit older, heavier, and little bit grey. I almost began to wonder who had been in prison. I turned around and hobbled back to my cell. I had spent the last few years getting my GED and an associate’s degree under my belt; basically moving on and feeling okay for being alive and being out of the drug life. It took a lot of work for the counselors to have gotten me as far as they had. It took them a few years to convince me that someone tried to kill me and a few years to convince me it was okay I survived. I couldn’t quite make the leap to forgiving the guy who put me where I was. That would require enlightenment and a lot more strength that I thought I had.
Another year went by and I received a simple card from Joe-Ray. It said, “I’m sorry.” It was so simple, yet so powerful. I actually cried and that wasn’t something one did while behind bars. I had to hide out in the shower to do it.
For reasons unclear to me, they came to me the next week and informed me I would be paroled early. I didn’t know what to make of that. I wasn’t prepared. In order for this to happen, I had to have a responsible relative basically agree to keep me out of trouble. I also had to have plans for employment. I already knew I wanted to be a drug counselor, but I hadn’t made any connections yet. For the first time in a long time, I was anxious and nervous. I really wanted to get out and suddenly the walls around me were closing in on me. I called my mom who always accepted my calls and told her the news. She screamed into the phone. When I told her the long list of requirements and said I would leave it in God’s hands, she laughed. “Leave it in the family’s hands, boy”
Three days later I received a letter from my mom, opened of course, that laid out my whole future. As dictated, I would be living at home and working with my cousin, the Reverend Joe-Ray Jones.
I got out on a Saturday with plans to attend my cousin’s church the next day. I was nervous. I realized I only agreed to this work plan because I was desperate. I had no idea how I would respond to meeting Joe-Ray in person. I thought I would have the night to think about it, but instead, Joe-Ray showed up at the house. As he came in, my parents made their exit, so I was followed out to the front porch. I wanted to run straight out the door, but instead, I sat down, clearly without knowing what to say. Every time I opened my mouth, all that came out was air, then Joe-Ray started to talk. He’d developed a great speaking voice. He told me how excited he was to see me that day and how shocked he was when the bullets rang out. Apparently, he was the target, not me. Just as he reached out to me, the first bullet rang out and spun me around. Then there were more bullets. The only reason he wasn’t shot was that I blocked the bullets. I fell back on top of him and he just pushed me off and ran. He was so ashamed. That was the apology. He felt he owed me his life and that his life should be for a better purpose, hence the ministry.
I sat there with my mouth open. I had been trying to prepare myself to tell Joe-Ray that I forgave him for shooting me. I was willing to chock it up to youth and raging hormones. Now all I had to do was forgive him for running for his life; the exact same thing I would have done. I started to cry, but ended up laughing. I felt I had been spared many more years of bitterness and that really, my life had been spared by being almost taken. We sat and talked the rest of the night, much as we had as kids.
Still, after all of these years, when the Reverend Joe-Ray and I do our spiel, we introduce one another as the guy who saved the other’s life by being shot, but ultimately by forgiveness.