With Violence and Doubt

Joseph Earl Thomas

I pulled the stop cord from the back of the 56 bus at Bridge & Torresdale, just before Rita’s Water Ice. It was spring, and all the Black and brown kids formed a long line from the counter, snaking through the parking lot in sweaty lust for free cherry and blueberry and lemon ice treats. Before I could step down completely off the bus though, a boy half my height pulled a gun on me. He hadn’t brushed his hair in a while, which I noticed maybe only because back then I was wearing a red durag every night trying to get waves like Usher, desperate for the attention of this eleventh grade girl with big hands who was like six and a half feet tall. The boy looked angry, but maybe not at me. Though we’d never met I couldn’t stand how familiar his gaze felt. I had left school early that day, avoiding the quicker route home on the El train so I wouldn’t have to fight strangers from other schools or, in my reluctance to fight, have to squirm my way out of a confrontation with other boys from Mastbaum. I was hot; even in the circumvented route home there was still no avoiding it. Feeling the gun against my back, I turned around almost by accident.

"Why are you doin this?" I said. "Why do you always have to do this? What the fuck do you want? What you want me to do?"

My voice cracked, perfect timing.

The boy's face tightened at my question, but he didn't say anything. He held his arm straight without shaking and never broke eye contact or lost his frown. This would not be the first or last time for either of us. Nor was it my first time trying to reason through it, trying to rationalize the kind of violence that felt everywhere and always and hardly random. I kept asking him why he would pull a gun on me, or what he wanted, growing angrier and more afraid, more ashamed at my begging with each word.

But when I turned to step off the bus, the boy didn't follow me. Maybe knowing which side of the cemetery he might stand on was enough for now. He just aimed the gun at me until the doors closed and the wheels kept on moving and I wasn't surprised that there was little spectacle involved. I let out a deep breath and ran home having pissed myself, knowing better than to tell anyone what happened. But I didn't have to say a word. One look at my face was all it took for my Popop to jump up from the couch as soon as I walked in the front door. His face was twisted, then solid, stuck in a frown that expressed all kinds of disgust for people both in and out of that living room.

"Fuck you cryin for?" he said. "Stop bein a lil bitch. If you gone cry like that, take ya little faggot ass to ya room."

When I was a boy I used to beg. A lot. And for almost anything, but especially to assuage the threat of violence. Only now do I realize I probably learned this from my grandmother, who begged in vain, nearly every night, shrieking for my grandfather to stop. I understood that nonviolent means never worked, but I thought to myself that maybe it was just my articulation that might be off. Social workers always said that talking things out was best; I just wasn't a good talker. I thought, for some odd reason, that there was a manner of logic being followed from which I might escape or transform a truth, at eight, nine, ten, eleven and so on: to decrease ass whoopings or increase food, to stop the bleeding or remove a hand from my thigh. I could learn, I thought, to demystify what was happening and turn it into an explanation from which love, or at least kindness, maybe some single tender word might emerge. But that, for me, and most of the people I knew was certainly a lie. But it was tools I needed; there was just so much I didn't understand and I had begun to think I didn't deserve to. If only I could get the formula right, I might skip the blood-stained gate, dig up some of the beauty of social life I'd heard so much about from some text to praxis. I simply didn't know enough and that was always the problem; it was my fault, always, for just being too dumb. Every injury I felt or saw, whether emotional or physical was due to my inability to resist or assimilate, my failure to be as normal or as manly or as Black as the people who claimed to love me demanded.

And later, when I received answers from older Black Boys like Dubois or Richard Wright, Ta Nehisi Coates or MK Asante, Fanon, or Elijah Anderson, I would feel the sting, never ending, of academic comfort while looking both back and forward at the never ending stream of personal disappointment, despite all the social, political, and intellectual gains.

In Baghdad, little kids begged too. Mostly for candy, or anything we might give them. For twelve hours a day we drove big vehicles down long dirt roads looking for bombs, more often finding children. Whenever they saw us, they'd run alongside the trucks yelling and smiling and laughing and sometimes throwing rocks or cursing, asking us to take them along. Sometimes they held onto the bumpers. We threw them snacks we'd gotten shipped from the U.S.: Laffy Taffy, Twizzlers, Scooby Doo Snacks and chocolate Otis Spunkmeyer muffins, peanut butter cookies and potato bread, Rice Krispies and Frosted Mini Wheats. There were many of us soldiers, all older boys though some claimed to be men. There were the white men on one end, and crackheads and convicts from Philly, like me, on the other, having little choice in the naming.

One night a white boy who liked naming threw a 12 oz. tin of Spam at an Iraqi boy, hitting him in the forehead. He bled. The boy stumbled and fell back, holding his whole face with tiny hands. His peers kept running, chasing our truck and smiling. The boys in my platoon, except for our First Sergeant and the other Black boy, all laughed. Spam was the event of the day, much like explosions would be later, scenes from which everyone might sketch out ambivalent mythologies. I imagined the can as infinitely heavy, a stone rolled up the mountaintop and crashing down into the boy's face; now it was a black hole of sorts, there was no mode of energy through which it might be safely touched or undone. They would say he was just a sand nigger anyway. I must have thought that cursing the boy who threw the Spam was useful, as if the clarity of my objections could ever reposition someone's body, so I cursed him.

"What the fuck is wrong with you, dickhead?"

The boy said nothing and kept laughing. Everyone ducked their heads back down into the vehicle's hatches and closed them but I stayed up top, frustrated. They tapped my legs, but I didn't move. All I could do was look around through the kicked up sand until I could no longer see any of the boys running, until they were all erased. My legs were still being tapped. Then someone pulled me down into the truck so hard the clip on my helmet snapped and the whole thing fell off my head.

"Doc! What the fuck is wrong with you? We were getting shot at. Didn't you hear it?"

After the army I was supposed to be studying biology, but I got a lot of B+'s in comparative anatomy and went on dates with my professor until her boyfriend cursed me out. At home I obsessed over Saidiya Hartman's work and read Daphne Brooks for the first time, and Maya Angelou and Maya Angelou again. Stacey Patton's work became especially important important to me. Kiese Laymon was a Black Boy, too, but poised against violence in ways I could never be. Malcolm X and Angela Davis needed not a friendly liberation, but liberation nonetheless, and other folks like Frank Wilderson seemed dangerous, too "pessimistic" for some people who read them, but so close to a truth. He followed Fanon too, like so many, and maybe, at this great intersection of doubt and compliance there's something else I should be able to say by now.

"Joey," my mother says over the phone. "I need you to get over here and bring your gun right now! Wesley hittin on me again."

She's high, I can tell. I dare not disabuse her or anyone else back home, really, of the fact that I no longer own a gun, that I haven't for years since the last time I turned it on myself after trying to smash some other niggas car window. I can scarcely recall a time in life where someone was not beating my mother though, or any time as an adult even, with the power of money and suggestion, of insurance and family therapy, a car to the counselor or parole officer, not a single time, at any point, where living with me in order to get away from it all, or my desperate pleas in an orchestra of shifting demeanors has yielded positive results of any kind for our relationship. What bothers me most, perhaps, is that this is the only version of her we have regular access to: no family photos, home videos or trips to the Philadelphia Zoo, just abjection to commiserate over, all gore and hurt that feels good and grit-worthy only on occasions when we exchange stories, both of us having survived and been offered the same prescription drugs.

And I have come by now to expect violence of every manifestation and angle from bodies of every type and disposition. I don't try to recall a time where begging my mother—let alone the type of man with whom we are all too familiar--to do, or not to do something has ever changed the encounter in the slightest, either because there are no such times, or, at the peak of my own vitriol I feel incapable of such charity toward anyone, especially myself. I was already driving toward her house and prepared for this in some way, even though the plan was just to pick her up and sit in the park together.

My mother's boyfriend, Wesley, who was also my grandmother's boyfriend before she was shot in the head two summers prior, is an older Black man in a wheelchair. An army veteran. From what I can remember of him, he looks a little like Gargamel from the Smurfs, but slower moving now that he's wheelchair bound. I mutate his features in the worst taste possible; he is not a demon, though certainly not a man, and most assuredly not someone I would like to see alive in this moment. My mother continues texting and calling as I drive, saying that she fought him back. She punched him.

Who does that nigga think he is? Joey, you would be proud of me. Taught him not to fuck with me no more.

When I arrive in Northeast Philly the police are already there. My mother is being dragged from the house, bloody and kicking. I could never speak to police at a normal heart-rate, but I do my best to remain calm. I gather my mother and tell the cop I'm going to take her to a new place, wherever that might be. A utopia perhaps, a theoretical playground where knowing things and civil negotiation reign supreme, where no one has to die so many times under such well-chronicled historical circumstances. Sitting in the passenger seat, my mother's clothes are all wet and her knuckles are cut; she's cursing and kicking things and slapping blood and piss and spit—both hers and Wesley's—on the dash and the insides of my car windows.

"Mom," I say. "Try to relax if you can." I look past her out of the window. "The cops are still right there and they know you high. You tryna go back to jail?"

I drive off with her white Converses pressed up against the windshield, her elbows banging on the door that I've already child locked. In about a half-hour of driving she starts to sober up and calm down. By now we're in the Target parking lot in Cheltenham Mall to get her some new clothes. I park the car as close as I can to the entrance and leave it running, trying not to cry or yell.

"Joey," my mother says. "I'm so proud of you."

She knows I can't stand hearing that. I want to be proud of us and never again perform wellness just because I'm the only one who can. I want there to be an us, outside of the silence and compulsive lies, the gaslighting that, were it not for my time away from home and conversations with my sister, might have physically altered my reality such that up really would be down. Rather than grit my teeth at a fancy university, I'd like to remove the knot in the small of my back that I could not righteously expunge on her wheelchair bound boyfriend in front of the police. It's the kind of knuckle and boot work I've considered so often just to get through the day, better, actually, in my imagination since in real life I can hardly fight. It would remain in my head. In this sense, there is another kind of silence which might be equal to, or greater than the physical violence of striking or naming, and it feels to me even more self-righteous. And so good.

After some hasty shopping, my mother stops me from thinking to show off her new dresses: bright yellows and oranges with duck prints and flowers. None of them are her look. In the store she's performing the slim, pretty brown woman with natural hair in a multi-culti fantasy, commercial, sitcom, where outside of the frame, after the director yells cut, things are misconstrued as being universally continuous with the moving image. She spins around and laughs. She asks me what I think and I lie to her. After we get her cleaned up at a relative's house, she throws on a blue floral romper which I think is pretty ugly, but pleasing anyway because if only for a brief moment she's smiling. And even though the twenty-five dollar romper overdraws my bank account, it's worth it for just those few seconds where we can smile together and pretend that things will ever be okay.

The next day I go out to get food at the corner store in Frankford, and I know what it'll be like if I come to check on my mother and she hasn't eaten yet and I only have one cheesesteak in hand so I get two, and an order of fries and four chicken wings with hot sauce and ketchup. While I'm at the store gathering the surprise of greasy delights, my mother calls me to say that Wesley is dead. She discovers rather quickly, that the only thing I can't do in this situation is stop laughing. I laugh so hard that I think I'm also dying which is probably why it feels so good and free. I laugh so much that the man making the cheesesteaks asks me if I'm good but really wants to know if I'm good, if I'm okay.

"It ain't funny, Joey," my mother says.

But this only makes me laugh harder.

And perhaps it isn't funny, even though it feels like I wrote the man's name in the Death Note, or like my mother, at her most petite, murdered him with her bare hands. I think then, that the whole thing might make a good story, or a case study, maybe a subversive theatre performance. Perhaps it's funny until I have to figure out where she'll live now, since they won't let her keep the house; it was never her property; nothing was ever in her name. Perhaps it's funny until I discover the cause of death, a heart attack in his sleep. Boring, I think to myself, That's not really violent at all. Or maybe it just isn't violent enough. But maybe that ignores the power and abuse of my chronicling altogether, better replaced in some instances with the soft lies of a more contemporary memoir and the politics of hope, or even more tempting and equally volatile, silence.