Chapter One: First Memories
Aunts and Uncles
Our parents were almost never home. The house seemed large because my sisters and I were alone and trapped in its emptiness. We made it bigger to enlarge our days there. But in fact the house was quite small. In the long days of being left alone, we got to know the interior of the house like our own bodies. It was our whole existence.
The four of us ranged in age from three to eight. My sister Charlene was the oldest, then me, Birdy, and Carlette. In this seemingly huge old house we had gone from crawling to standing to walking, like the evolution chart that shows a monkey-man developing into the first human being. Those pictures come to mind when I think about how my sisters and I grew up.
I can still see my sisters' faces from those many years ago. Yet at that time we never gave a thought to how we looked or what we wore on our tiny bodies. The only times we noticed ourselves were when I used to walk around in my stepfather Otis’s shoes and when my sisters put on my mother’s different wigs. Then we would prance around the house, laughing and giggling at how we looked.
Afterward, putting Mama's and Otis's things back in the exact same place where we had found them was a serious matter. If we got caught messing with their things—as happened once—we'd be beaten out of our wits. But playing with their things was not the absolute cardinal sin. The most forbidden thing of all was playing with the tiny balloons stashed in socks and hidden all over the house. These balloons were filled with heroin. I used to set out to find them, like going on an Easter egg hunt. I'd open the socks and play with the colorful balloons as if they were my secret toys. They were like marbles. I liked to put them in piles—all the blue ones together, the reds together, the yellows together. Whichever color there were the fewest of seemed the most special. I liked the danger of it too. I took great care to put the balloons back just as I had found them. (Even today I can look at something, take a mental picture of its position, remove it, and replace it in the exact same spot.) It made me feel grown up to handle these jewels of my parents', as if I were part of the same business as all the people I saw coming to the house; it made me feel like "somebody."
It was the late sixties, when my mother Cynthia and my stepfather Otis were among the biggest heroin users and dealers in Long Beach, California. From the outside the house didn’t look like a dope house. My parents had lots of money from being in the drug underworld, so they could afford a "front house" that drew no suspicion or complaints from the neighbors. The house was a place where my parents’ clientele and whomever they chose to bring with them could always, no matter the time of day, walk right in and shoot their dope indoors, off the streets. Many of their customers would nod themselves to sleep right there on the living room or bathroom floor and stay for hours and hours.
These friends and customers of my parents had a code word to use when they came to the house and only my sisters and I were there—which was most of the time. They introduced themselves as our "uncles" and "aunts." We had many, many uncles and aunts. My favorites were the ones who nodded out on the couch or in the bathroom sitting on the edge of the toilet, with saliva dripping from their mouths. Then I could steal the coins from their pants pockets or the pouches hidden inside their bosoms. I never took paper money, just coins, because the grocery store clerks gave me strange looks when I tried to buy candy bars for my sisters with paper money. Also, I didn't know the difference between a five-dollar bill and a hundred-dollar bill. So I stuck to stealing coins from pockets. I liked the dimes best.
We were too young and innocent to be afraid of the strangers who entered the house throughout the day and night. The frequency of their visits even gave us the feeling that they somehow cared for us. Sometimes they asked when we last ate, or simply noticed that we hadn’t, and they would come back with boxes of doughnuts and pop. Sometimes prostitutes brought their tricks there, but my mother didn’t like that. She told us to let her know if it happened so she could beat those women up.
Even with the filthy, ragged clothes on our backs, we had no comparisons to make that would tell us that our fragile lives were being neglected. How were we to know our lacking everything was any different from children's lives in other households? The clothes we wore, the way we smelled— it all fit, like junkyard guys working alongside each other, nobody thinking he smells worse than the next guy. In those long wallowing hours of hunger pangs, we lived in the same ragged clothes, the same stench, and the dry salt of our tears, but we were together. And in our misery we shared many moments of laughing and chasing one another in childish games that almost made us forget the hours, days, and weeks of abandonment.
From That Bird Has My Wings by Jarvis Jay Masters. Copyright 2009 © by Jarvis Jay Masters. Excerpted with permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.