Susie: Black Inside and Out
They say children don’t begin to retain their memories until they are around four years old, but I hadn’t yet turned three when I became aware of my skin in the sandbox of the neighborhood park, surrounded by two and three story homes and parents who pretended to ignore me behind maple leaves and flying children on swings.
I called my grandmother by her first name, Gabbi. In public, people mistook her for my mother, my actual mother for my older sister. Gabbi’s hair was cut short and dyed a copper red. She wore jeans and leather boots, even in the summer. She liked showing off her thick thighs and wide hips. “I still got it,” she would say as she sashayed past men younger than her in the mall while I squeezed her index finger, scurrying to keep up, and my mother lollygagged behind, pretended not to be associated.
The only indication of Gabbi’s age was the lines around the edge of her mouth. “Fussing at your crazy mom,” she explained. A permanent scowl on her lips that hadn’t left since the day Mom came home with an F in English, a nineteen-year-old dropout boyfriend, and a baby on the way.
I didn’t see much of Mom growing up. She and Gabbi didn’t get along, and after she had me, she moved in with Pawpaw, only visited me on the weekends.
Our Saturdays together usually involved me being left alone on the playground while she snuck off to meet my dad and, as Gabbi often muttered while holding me, “make another baby he ain’t gon take care of.” I’d only seen his face in pictures. He always wore a hat, shielding his eyes, his shirts hung off his shoulders as if on coat hangers, and his pants could fit three people. The only distinct feature of him I could remember was his mouth. The thin line of black hair across his upper lip looked as if a child had scribbled with a crayon. He bit down on his bottom lip, sneering at the camera, jutting out his chin and the strip of hair that extended down toward his neck.
He bought me a toy fire truck for Christmas. The paint was chipped, the flashing lights and blaring siren broken, the left rearview mirror bent. Gabbi suspected he swiped it from a bin full of toys meant to be donated to homeless children, or it was a hand-me-down from a younger sibling or cousin. I didn’t mind his thoughtless gift. It was all that I had of him. Fire fighters saved people’s lives. They extinguished fires, rescued children from burning buildings. I held onto the hope that there was something heroic underneath the frightening exterior captured in his photograph.
No one ever played in the park by Gabbi’s house. A creek ran through it, alongside the basketball court, swing set, and merry-go-round. It was overgrown with weeds and shrubs, the water as shallow as a rain puddle. The steady chorus of crickets and cicadas resonated from the tall grass, and one woman swore she saw a snake once.
Instead, Gabbi dropped us off at a park near her co-worker’s house. We drove through the gentrified portion of King Drive where Gabbi complained about how the “yuppies” were taking over and raising the property value. We merged onto the highway, drove six exists west to a quieter part of town.
The park was located in the widened median of Shiloh Hills, a cul-de-sac where the playground divided the street down to the end, houses on either side. They each stood tall, having at least a second floor, a shuttered window near the roof where an attic would’ve been. The porches spread across the face of the houses, plastic lawn chairs stacked underneath the spacious windows. At our apartment, we shared a front lawn with ten other tenants. Our designated yards no more than two patches of land separated by the concrete front stoop. However, these homes had lawns where you could cartwheel without kicking your neighbor in the gut, where you weren’t trespassing after taking two or three steps. The grass was a rich, deep green whereas we still covered the dirt with hay, waiting on the rain, waiting on a fresh blade to grow amongst the cigarette butts, broken glass from beer bottles.
Gabbi didn’t trust leaving Mom alone with me, but she knew that a growing child needed to know her mother, so she promised to be back in an hour and left for Target to browse the home section.
Holding my fire truck out in front of me as if it were an airplane, I raced down to the sandbox, sunk my knees into the cushion of the sand and pushed my truck back and forth, wailing at the top of my lungs, weee-oooh, weee-oooh, in route to put out another fire.
Mom stood by the sandbox fidgeting. She crossed one foot over the other, then back again, twisted her torso as if stretching, looked down at her watch, blowing air into her cheeks as if frustrated with the time she was given. It didn’t take me long to realize she hadn’t come to spend time with me, and when the ’69 Impala pulled to the curb, the heavy bass of the music causing the sand grains around me to rise and fall, I knew who she was anxious to see.
“Stay put. I’ll be right back,” she whispered into my ear.
I swung around to face her. “You gon ta see daddy?”
She pulled the strap of her purse over her shoulder, leaned back and stretched her neck in the direction the car was parked.
“He doesn’t always get to see me when she’s around, ya know. He misses your mama.”
“But not me?”
“That’s different.” She caressed the side of my head, and with the jerk of her arm, pulled my face to her mouth. “Don’t tell Gabbi,” she said before kissing my forehead. She smeared a smile across her face as she approached an older woman sitting on the bench that faced my sandbox. She pointed back at me, pressed her palms together as if pleading that her rendezvous would only take a few minutes, and before I could blink, she had disappeared inside the car, the engine revving loudly as it sped off, disappearing from sight.
© Nortina Simmons