by Andrew Broadous
Vernita Bowen was too occupied with The Temptations’ “Just my Imagination” on her speaker mod to care that her son, Levi, had yet again stolen from Rite Aid. She barely turned her head when he entered the screen door wearing the same brown leather jacket he had outgrown ten years ago. It was mid-March, but the mornings and evenings were cold, just enough for Vernita to worry about her tomatoes freezing in her garden.
Levi looked in the kitchen to see if there was any cornbread left on the counter, looked once again, then slumped on the comfy chair beside his mother in the living room. His pockets were overstuffed with plastic packages of multicolored balloons.
Paul Williams crooned the house down. Vernita cried when she heard about his suicide in 1973. And she cried when her husband, Tyree, called him a coward who couldn’t handle his own life. Then he added, “You can cry, but a real man ain’t supposed to,” as if that would make his wife feel better, justified by her femininity in reaching for the tissues that were always nearby.
Vernita still cried. For every occasion: grocery shopping for bags of kidney beans, watering her tomato garden, or, most frequently, no reason at all. But she hadn’t cried when Levi came home eight days ago with three value water guns he had no receipt for. Or the tablecloth and 100-count birthday candles, a week before that. Levi had taken out twenty-seven of them, the blue ones, and laid them onto the counter in a neat row. When Vernita saw them, she didn’t ask where they came from. She only picked one of them up, kissed it, and set it back down.
Levi plucked a blue balloon from one of the packages and held it between his thumb and index finger. He dangled it in front of him like it were a dead goldfish.
Vernita sang along. She had dark skin mottled with copious amounts of makeup she struggled to find in her tone. She wore a light purple lipstick, maroon dress, and boasted thick hair she bunched on top of her head like a pineapple. She loved it, said it reminded her of her roots in Côte d’Ivoire. Now that she was fifty-nine, after thirty years living in South Central, she had forgotten most of her French. But it quickly percolated back to her tongue whenever her sister, Chandra, now living in San Diego, called her on the phone. Chandra would talk fast with her braggadocio and say what a struggle it must be to care for an intellectually disabled twenty-seven-year-old son.
“He’s almost twenty-seven,” Vernita would say.
Levi mumbled a few lines off-key. He was lighter-skinned than his mother but dark enough to pass any paper sack test. He had a shallow moustache and a big lower lip that often dribbled grapefruit juice onto his t-shirts. His head protruded in the back, a feature that prompted some of the neighborhood kids to call him “Long-Head Levi.”
It was far better than the other names.
The song faded out, and Vernita still had her eyes closed and her face turned toward the ceiling. Then she opened them, caught the lemony headlights of her husband’s station wagon steaming through the window blinds. She let “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” roll along as Tyree fumbled at the door, realized it was unlocked, and stepped inside.
“Hello, hello,” Tyree said as he shuffled his Workman boots across green carpet. He was six-foot-two and stocky, wearing a light gray twill coverall with a nametag and faded oil spots around the midriff. It was a sixty-three-year-old Senior Mechanic’s trademark. Tyree was the darkest member of his small family of three. He kissed his wife and turned toward Levi, now assembling all the blue balloons into a pile on the floor.
“Two more weeks,” Vernita said. “Isn’t that something?”
“Oh, that’s right,” Tyree said, stooping to the ground. “The big two-seven. Where’d you get the balloons, champ?”
Levi shook his head quickly and looked aside at Vernita’s speaker mod.
Vernita put a hand on Levi’s back. “He’s thinking about an ice cream cake this year.”
Tyree scratched his graying beard. “Switching it up. I like it.” His voice was surprisingly soft and hoarse, like Forest Whitaker’s. Many, upon first meeting him, expected Ving Rhames.
“Chocolate,” Levi muttered. “Chocolate ice cream cake, Mom.”
“Is he going to swipe that, too?” Tyree said, turning to look at Vernita. The whites of his eyes seemed to pop in their sockets. But his voice hadn’t changed.
“Tyree,” Vernita said in a hushed tone.
“Why not?” Tyree continued. “He’s got the water guns, the tablecloth, and—” he stood to his feet and peered into the kitchen. The blue wax sticks were still in a line on the countertop. “And his candles are all set. So let’s have him head down and pick up an ice cream cake, too, while he’s at it.”
“No, I’m serious. Levi, you go right on ahead and pick one up tomorrow. Don’t bother paying for it.” He straightened out the crinkles in his uniform and huffed.
“Tyree,” Vernita chirped, pointing to the window. Reds and blues raced through the night. Then a knocking came.
Tyree breathed slowly out his big nostrils and walked to the door. When he opened it, he saw Officer Steadman’s half-smile, his hands in his pockets.
“How are you, Tyree?” The officer said. He craned his neck inside the house and greeted Vernita, then glanced at Levi, who was sitting cross-legged on the floor. “Hello, Levi.”
Levi mumbled something and looked away.
Tyree breathed out again, even more slowly. “He knows what he did.”
“May I come in?”
Tyree opened the door wide and stepped aside.
Officer Steadman’s half-smile still clung to the side of his mouth. He had hazelnut-colored skin and widely spaced eyes that surveyed Levi like a damselfly. He took off his cap and held it behind him.
“How many times is this?” Officer Steadman said.
Tyree held up four fingers.
Levi shook his head.
Officer Steadman crouched his long legs low and looked at Levi squarely. “We can’t have you doing this again, son. Do you understand? This is what criminals do. And you’re not a criminal, are you?”
“Not a criminal,” Levi muttered. “Not a criminal.”
“He’s just excited for his birthday,” Vernita interjected. “Isn’t that right, Levi?”
It was like a light had turned on in Levi’s head. He grinned widely and exposed a small snaggletooth above his right canine. “I turn twenty-seven,” he said.
“Twenty-seven?” Officer Steadman said. “Twenty-seven? But I swear you were seventeen yesterday.”
Levi laughed. “Nope.”
“So, Officer,” Tyree blurted. “What’ll be the penalty for a fifth offense?”
Officer Steadman dropped his smile and stood straight up, his body like a thin tower. “I’m afraid he’ll be coming with me to the station.” He eyed Levi. “But that won’t happen, will it, son?”
Levi shuddered. “Not a criminal.”
“Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” rolled right into “I Wish It Would Rain.”
“Playing the classics,” Officer Steadman said as he popped his cap back on. “Always my treat when I see y’all,” he added, slipping back outside.
Vernita stood by her husband with her bare feet on the front lawn. They both waved at the policeman, watched him cut his flashing lights and wheel down the street, down into the oily black night.
“This needs to stop,” Tyree said. “He’s too old to be doing this.”
Vernita wiggled her toes in the wet grass.
“I take it he didn’t apply to Food4Less today,” Tyree said with another sigh.
“He did,” Vernita said. “Then he went and got himself some balloons.”
“He had better be a bagboy by the end of the month,” Tyree said. He slid his arm down Vernita’s back and sauntered inside.
Vernita remained on the lawn.
The Tempts sang on.
Levi imitated David Ruffin’s style as best he could, but it came out mostly flat.
Vernita smiled. She walked slowly back inside the house. She turned off her phone’s music and told Levi to take a shower because he smelled like a wet dishrag.
At that comment, Levi snickered. “Dishrag.”
“Get going,” Vernita said. “Wash all over, you know.”
Levi rolled to his feet and marched into the bathroom and closed the door. He turned on the hot water.
Vernita often had to send her son back in two or three additional times to wash himself properly. Rarely did he get it right the first time. For over twenty years, that’s how it was. And much to Vernita’s surprise, her husband never complained about the water bill.
Vernita turned her music back on. She replayed Ruffin’s soulful song. Then again for good measure.
The next morning, the temperature had warmed significantly. Vernita’s worries of her tomatoes freezing were naturally replaced by an ardent need to combat anything else that could ruin her garden. So she speckled water and cutworm pesticide over the bunched vines and leaves. Her entire garden was one big, boxy red cage atop a patch of soil in the backyard. She always produced the fruits for her homemade chili, which Levi devoured, along with thick cakes of cornbread and honey butter he used like frosting. Vernita started making the chili when Levi was seven, after she found him writhing for breath on the floor, an orange newspaper bag stuck to his face like flypaper.
On that day, both mother and son learned what comfort food truly was.
While Vernita tended her garden, Levi received a call from the supervisor at Food4Less. She was expecting him at four. Levi ran into the backyard screaming the news, and Vernita dashed inside to pick out Levi’s attire: a dark blue dress shirt she ironed herself and dress shoes she polished. In addition, Levi insisted on wearing a checkered bowtie, which Vernita abhorred. She led him into the bathroom, saying, “Don’t you think you look nice just like this?” Then she watched him smile his glowing smile in front of the mirror and almost teared up.
“Nice like this,” Levi said. He turned to his mother. “No bowtie?”
Levi continued to stare at himself, beaming all the while.
“Give yourself a half-hour to get on down there,” said Vernita. “Okay?”
Levi nodded emphatically. He sauntered into the living room and sat on the comfy chair, awaiting his appointment. He stood up every fifteen minutes for several hours. At 3:30 on the mark, he marched out the door. Food4Less was less than a quarter-mile from the house, and Tyree took the car each morning, so Levi traipsed down the sidewalk. He quickened his pace past the Greenes, two houses down.
The Greenes' six and eight-year-old sons barked rude remarks Vernita couldn't discern when Levi shuffled by.
“Timothy!” Vernita wailed. “George! Stop pestering your neighbor!”
Levi went even faster.
“Don’t run, now!” Vernita called out behind him. “Or you’ll get all sweaty!”
Levi turned and waved and kept straight ahead, ignoring his mother’s advice.
Vernita plopped down on the sofa in the living room. She closed her eyes. Thirty-four minutes passed, and her “My Girl” ringtone went off. It was her sister, inconsolably bored and wanting the latest gossip in fast-talk French. Vernita struggled to keep up with her. She relayed last night’s events in her half-Compton, half-Piaf accent.
“C’est terrible,” Chandra said.
Vernita breathed heavily. “Ouais, je sais.”
“Vingt-sept, n’est-ce pas?”
“In two weeks, he will be,” said Vernita sharply. She quickly corrected herself. “Deux semaines, oui.”
Chandra clicked her tongue on the other end.
Vernita held her breath.
Neither one said anything for nearly a full minute.
Finally, Vernita asked Chandra about her daughter, who had just graduated from UCLA.
“Magna Cum Laude,” Chandra replied. It didn’t sound anything like the Latin it was supposed to be.
Still, Vernita was able to decipher it. “C’est fantastique,” she said. “Juste fantastique, Chandra.” On her end, she was tempted to add that Levi nailed a job at Food4Less, but it just seemed far too soon. She instead congratulated her sister again and insisted that she had to return to her tomatoes and her nonexistent pot of boiling chili.
“À plus tarde,” said Chandra. “Je t’aime.”
“Je t’aime aussi,” Vernita said.
Chandra left with a beep.
Vernita sat back in her sofa for a silent hour. She then plugged in her speaker mod, shut her eyes, and waited for The Tempts and Blue Magic to carry her away in colorful tones and falsettos.
Tyree swung the screen door and let it waver shut, snapping Vernita fully awake.
Vernita squinted at the evening light shooting unabashedly on the walls and furniture. She smoothed over her dress. “Bonjour, mon amour,” she found herself saying.
“Yeah, bonjour to you, too,” Tyree muttered. His French came out like a true blue-collar American: bawnjurr.
“What’s wrong?” Vernita said.
Tyree tilted his head back and bit his lip. “Can you guess who called me at work?”
“It wasn’t Levi, but I could hear him in the background.”
“No,” Vernita said. “He didn’t.”
Tyree nodded. “Sure as you’re born.”
Vernita stood slowly up. “Well, you told him to, didn’t you?”
Tyree’s broad nose crinkled. “What?”
“Yesterday,” Vernita explained. “You told him to do it. What did you expect?”
“I didn’t expect that dummy to actually go down there and do it.”
Vernita looked at him without blinking. Her eyes were two slingshots.
“Thanks to him, I had to leave work.”
“Now you have a head start on the weekend,” Vernita said. “You should be glad.”
Vernita held out her hand.
“Donnes-moi les clés.”
“Could you speak English, for Pete's sake?” Tyree spat.
“Just give me the keys. I’m going to get him.”
“I was just there,” Tyree said flatly. He packed his hands into his pockets. “The bail is two hundred.”
“We’ve got the money,” Vernita assured.
“Birthday money,” Tyree said.
Vernita stared at him once more. “We’ll get him something else, Tyree.”
Tyree’s voice buckled down into a whisper. “He needs to learn, Vernita. It’s only for one night.”
Vernita felt that familiar hard knob in her throat.
“He’s twenty-seven, after all,” Tyree said.
Vernita’s face moistened with salt. “I don’t care how old he is,” she choked out. “Il est mon bébé.”
Tyree tried to put his burly arms around her, but Vernita slid from his hold and went into the kitchen. She flung the back door open and sat in the grass.
Tyree creaked open the back door. He crept outside. “It’s for the best,” he murmured.
Vernita stood up and trooped to her tomato garden. She jerked one fist-sized fruit from the vine, turned it over several times, and launched it at the fence. Then she threw another. And another. They all burst into small ruby-red chunks.
Officer Steadman called at 6:22 a.m. the following morning. His lighted face bobbed on Tyree’s phone screen.
Tyree rolled to his side of the bed and knocked over a few bottles of diphenhydramine, a treatment for his sleepless nights and weary days in the shop spent diagnosing faulty brakes and whining wheels. He froze on his stomach, his right hand dangling on the nightstand.
On the second to the last ring, Vernita scrambled over her husband’s back and pressed the phone icon. She then put the device on speakerphone.
“Morning, Tyree,” the officer said. “This is your rooster calling.”
“Yeah,” Tyree said groggily.
“Good morning, Officer,” Vernita said.
“Good—good morning to you, too, Vernita.”
“How’s my son?”
“He’s had a bit of a rough night,” said the officer. “He’s been crying a lot and asking for his mama.”
Another voice on the other end muttered a few words.
“That’s right,” the officer remembered. “Your boy’s also been saying, ‘he said I could’ over and over and over.”
Vernita cleared her throat loudly, and Tyree turned his neck to the side and groaned.
“Anyhow,” the officer continued with a long sigh. “He’s been a little hysterical, as expected. You’re free to come and grab him when you’re ready.”
“What about his record?” Vernita said.
The officer paused. “Let’s just see to it that this never happens again.”
“Thanks, Jim,” Vernita said. “I’m sorry for all this.”
“Yeah, me, too.” He paused and added, “He’s a good kid, you know.”
Vernita felt her eyes start to burn.
“One last thing, you two,” the officer said. “You want to throw this cake out or should I?”
“Toss it,” Tyree said quickly, shifting in the bed. “It ain’t his birthday yet.”
The officer laughed. “Will do. I’ll see you when I see you.” He left the screen with a low beep.
Vernita twisted her body off the bed and entered the bathroom. When she emerged, her dark hair was tossed across her right shoulder, and she had not a streak of makeup on her face. She slipped on a black hoodie and silver tennis shoes and slung her purse over her left shoulder. She stared at Tyree.
It was his cue to roll over, don a flecked gray sport jacket, shoes, baseball cap, take a swig of orange juice in the kitchen, and amble his way to the car with his wife.
The ride to the police station was paved with oscillating shadows and sprinkler water. Unlike the day before, the early morning had dropped to its usual need-for-fleece temperature. The sights and sounds of Saturday: bold joggers with bobbing ponytails, restless porch-sitters in light jackets, and Jack Russells barking their spots off. To Vernita, all these came in a whirlwind of colors and blurred lines as she sat in the passenger’s seat.
Tyree parked the station wagon into the lot outside the police station and stepped out. Arm-in arm, he and Vernita walked to the glass doors, catching a glimpse of Levi shooting out of a chair in the waiting room when they approached the windows.
Levi latched onto his mother like a man-toddler. He still wore his interview clothes. There was a stain on his dress shirt from where the chocolate ice cream cake had fallen from his big lip.
Vernita leaned her head on his shoulder. “Don’t do this to me again.”
Tyree stood with his hands at his sides, a satisfied smile on his lips.
Officer Steadman nodded from behind a desk. “I don’t want to see you in that cell again, Levi,” he said. “Know what I mean?”
Levi unclasped his mother and darted his head toward the officer. “Not a criminal.”
Officer Steadman smiled. “That’s right.” He gave a final wave to the Bowens and strolled his long legs to a back room.
“Danielle called me,” Levi said, as the car rolled out of the parking lot. “One hour ago.”
“Who’s Danielle?” said Vernita.
“She works at Food4Less.”
“What’d she say?” Tyree chimed in.
Levi shot his long arms up and hit the headliner. “I got the job!”
Vernita clapped her hands together like she was in church.
“That’s the way,” Tyree said. “My boy.”
“Danielle said I get to bag tomatoes!” Levi exclaimed. “Just like Mom!”
“We’ll have to celebrate,” Vernita said.
“Two weeks,” said Levi, fussing with his seatbelt. “It’s in two weeks.”
“Not your birthday, silly,” Vernita said. “Your new job.” She turned to look at her husband. She whispered something in his ear, and Tyree nodded.
“Mom, can you play The Tempts?” Levi said.
Vernita reached inside her purse and pulled out her speaker mod. She slipped off her phone case and connected her mod via the magnetic attachments. In a few seconds, the piano intro sounded, and David Ruffin serenaded the station wagon.
Levi closed his eyes and strained his vocals.
Tyree bobbed his head while careening the car down several roads cracked with roots and weeds. He stopped at a small park tucked behind a gulley a few blocks from the house.
When Levi shut the car door, he looked up at the sky. A big white grocery bag caught on the spire of the playground castle and floated through the air. He pointed at it and snickered. The steady laugh rolled into something hearty and snorting that he couldn’t control.
“What’s so funny?” Vernita said.
Levi pointed again to the sky.
“The bag?” Tyree said. “It’s just a floating bag.” He glanced at Vernita, who shrugged and laughed along quietly. Tyree watched his son bend over with unadulterated hilarity. Witnessing it hit him abruptly and mercilessly like a charging semi-truck. He wiped his face with the back of his hand and sighed. Then he joined his wife and son in laughing at the tender, meandering something he couldn’t explain. He didn’t want to.