--EVERBODY WANTS TO OWN THE END OF THE WORLD
My Life in Black and White
Momma says she likes her coffee the same way she likes her men: black, strong and steamy. She says this with a cup of bourbon in her hand, when it’s just the two of us and the morning’s bleak and blue-streaked from all this Seattle rain. Momma says things like that to be funny, because she doesn’t know how to make an eight year old laugh.
Before she leaves, Momma smokes two more cigarettes and does her lipstick and dumps her cup in the sink with the rest of the dishes. She grabs her purse and says, “I gotta work late tonight,” even though I already know this. Next she says, “Find something to do.” She means go outside and play. I tell her I’m fine and she says, “Ta hell,” and hikes up her boobs and bra so the lacy pink rises over her blouse. Her skirt pulls around her thighs, her shoes are towers, and as she steps down the hall her heels clatter like a goat.
I listen and wait. Then I step up on the kitchen counter, open a cupboard, go through the shoebox of old letters and yellowed bill statements until I find it. After I do, I step off carefully because there’s egg yolk on one side of the Formica and a spilled ash tray on the other.
I kneel down on the gold shag rug, a little spur of something blooming inside of me, and open the envelope.
Here’s a picture of Douglas. That thing he’s holding is actually a strip of hose. He puts it against this curvy carafe and lights the thing on fire and sucks the flame through the hose until it makes smoke and then Momma will often sidle off the love seat and lightly punch his puffed-out cheeks and—Whoosh! —I’ll get smoldered and smothered and Momma will cackle and say, “But damn, don’t he look just like Puff the Magic Dragon when he do that?”
This one’s Daddy. The photograph has rippled edges and the face of the paper stock is cracked. On the back it says Lou 12/25/196? This was before he and Mother met up, probably before either Kennedy brother got shot. I know it’s just a bus driver uniform that Daddy’s wearing but I used to pretend different, that he was an army officer. I pictured him like that drill sergeant in “An Officer and a Gentleman,” barking orders, a person with power, in charge of others. One thing I’ve learned is that a little bit of anger isn’t so bad. It’s better than what I see, which is a lot of nothing going on, all Momma’s friends stoned to the wind, laying around like a pile of jacked-up mummies, stiff as store window mannequins.
Great Grandma Faith came from the North Country where it was always frozen. You can see that much here, in the way she’s pinching her lips all walnuty crinkled, her eyes black as jet. Some say I got my imagination from Grandma Faith and since she died a century or so ago, I’ll have to take their word for it. If you ask me, she looks mighty mean.
This is my dog Doogan. Some boys in our old neighborhood took up with the rock—that’s what Momma calls crack—and they made a firecracker necklace to tie around Doogan’s head. He didn’t die from that but Doogan did go deaf and then that’s why he didn’t hear the cab that ran over him. I miss him fierce but the place we’re in now don’t allow pets, so Momma says it’s just as well.
I don’t get all these pictures of the same convertible and no people in it. Must have been something special about it. What I notice is how clean the streets around it are, how the stoops are clear of sleeping bodies and how, in one, a girl about my age is drawing a chalk flower. Sometimes I’ll pretend she’s my best friend and I’ll give her beautiful names like Bethany or Alexandra.
Here’s me, the only film picture in existence as far as I know. What’s strange is I’ve never seen myself look like this before--pretty. Not in mirrors or reflected glass. Hey, but I realize a camera can be a darn good liar most of the time without even meaning to. I’m an ugly runt. I know what I am. Still, something about the graininess of the photo makes me appear mysterious, or better yet, lucky. Whoever took this Polaroid had the shakes because I’m a blur more than a living person.
The last one in the envelope is Little Louis. Double L, Momma always says when she refers to my brother. He could have been the first President from the projects. He would have been a famous poet or a singer or surgeon, Momma was sure of it. As a sort of insurance policy, she read his palm when he took sick so young. My Momma can be cruel but she’s a smart woman. I ask her about Little Lou all the time. Sometimes she’ll tell me stories, some repeats, once in a grand while a fresh one. But even a future president doesn’t accumulate a lot of stories before the age of five so mostly she’ll say for me to keep my mind on my own self.
Tomorrow will begin year nine of my life. The way I look at it, anything can happen. It’s going to be Christmas in a week. This time, same as the others, I asked for a camera. I know how crazy that is and if I didn’t Momma is always there to remind me. Her boyfriend, Lester, got me a plastic one that clicks when you punch the taking button. He thought buying me that toy would get him special access into my underwear, but Lester’s a dumb ass. If he tries anything, I’ll slice him frontwards and backwards.
Right now I spend most of my afternoons here, climbed up over the back of the couch that’s butted up to the window. We live in 9D on the sixth floor of this building. There’s a view of things. Momma says I’m a strange kid cause where’s all my friends? The deal is I don’t need any, don’t want any. There’s stuff that goes on around here I’d rather not have anybody else know.
Besides, I got plenty to do. I got this window and that whole world outside it. Some parts are repulsive, sure. There’s dumpsters and people digging through them. Real cat fights where animals rip each other’s eyes out of the socket. I seen a man beat up a girl. I seen a lot of things.
But no one and nothing’s perfect. God filled the world with all kinds. That’s what makes being a photographer so interesting. Even what’s old can be new. What’s ugly can be beautiful from a certain angle. What’s dark, what’s absolutely, one hundred percent, hopelessly black can bear light.