February 27, 2020
I live in the whitest big city on the Blackest block. Simultaneously seen and unseen. I used to hate the erasure. But now, well, now I don’t mind if I stay hidden. Especially since MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility is in my literal rearview. But the longer we idle in Portland traffic, the more reality sinks in that that’s not how any of this works.
Marcus tries to bury this truth with conversations on moving forward. On possibilities. But it will be as hard to shake the strike against me as it is for the windshield wipers to win their battle against this torrential downpour.
Marcus’s and my coexistence in this car proves that fact. There will always be somebody to check me. To explain myself to. To keep at a distance. Which makes who I roll with matter more than ever. And I don’t mean my boy Boogie, who knows I’m more likely to be up late reading Octavia Butler or scouring through my collection of Black Panther comics than be hanging out. I mean my other so-called friends. Correction, white friends who’ve been known to mouth off to an officer without fear. Who don’t think twice about trying to be anything they want.
Meanwhile, I’m not trying to be nothing at all.
Marcus hands me coffee he picked up from the first drive-thru after we left the facility. Coffee is nasty. My stomach can’t take it, but I also can’t say no to him. I’m so close to semi-freedom—I’m not taking any chances. Not today.
“Dre, how you really feeling about all this?” Marcus adjusts his mirror like he’ll see better.
“All right.” What am I supposed to say? Living the dream riding with my probation officer? Can’t wait to get home . . . so I can still be under surveillance? I know I’m wallowing in my situation, which isn’t like me. I’m the type to kick my feet and claw my way above water—even if it’s only with words. But staying silent seems like the best way to just get home.
Besides, he’s asked this same question fifty-eleven times. He wants something deeper ’cause he takes my silence as not caring. But he’s wrong. I do care. My life felt like it was about to be over until I got community monitoring. But even without more juvie time, I’m still twisted inside with all types of feelings. Like how I got caught up in the first place. And how bad I wanna roll down the window and let the rain drench me as I yell out, I’m free. It’s a wrap. Dunzo. Then swipe my hand below my chin with a cocky grin. But that’s not the kind of care Marcus wants.
“That’s all I get? All right?” Marcus sighs, giving me a once-over. “You hit the jackpot, Dre. The sooner you realize it, the better. Use your mind.” Marcus taps his temple like he just dropped some knowledge.
“Yeah, okay.” I bounce my right foot, fighting the urge to scratch at my ankle.
Don’t get me wrong, Marcus is supposedly one of the good ones. And I came up having a Black juvenile counselor who is more likely to see me as a person than a problem. That’s not how it always goes. Inside, the guys talked about all the power trips from probation counselors who were just waiting for you to fail. The fact mine’s Black and used to be a teacher, I hit the lottery. No question. But this doesn’t change that I have no choice in our situation. He says jump and I gotta say how high.
“You’re close to putting this all behind you now,” Marcus says. “Just lay low. Focus on school.”
I chew on the corner of my lip, holding back a response. Holding back anger to stay numb.
“Come on.” He nudges me. “I know you’re excited to be going home.”
I give a weak nod.
His gaze studies me before he speaks. “Not feeling moving in with your grandparents?”
“I’m fine with it.” I’ve practically lived with my grandparents my whole life back and forth between their house and apartments in the 100s blocks. So, when I think about home, it’s always the people, not the place. But this time I have to face them knowing they’ll look at me different. And I’m afraid of what they’ll see. There’s no way to go back to what was. I’m Dre now—the Andre they knew is gone to them.
“I need details if this is gonna work, son. Think of me like family. You can even call me Uncle Marcus. Some kids I work with do.”
“I’ll stick with Marcus,” I deadpan, all business between us.
He’s saying this because I treat him like the probation officer he is, and he’s offended at any insinuation of law enforcement. He’s more police-adjacent, he likes to say. But his actual title is juvenile court counselor, and let’s be real, it’s the same thing.
As much as everybody who works for Multnomah County Juvenile Justice been calling me son. Kid. Young man. Like we’re kin. I know the truth: it’s their J.O.B. They’re following some guidebook on how to make connections. Before I was assigned to Marcus, calling me son sure didn’t stop the first juvenile court counselor from recommending I get an ankle monitor even though the judge wasn’t pushing for that during sentencing.
Here’s the thing, I appreciate that Marcus cares, but we’re not family. Dad wouldn’t like it anyway. Not when Marcus is part of the system designed to lock me up in the first place.
Marcus stares, again. I avoid his inspection by sipping the nasty coffee ’cause I don’t wanna be in my feelings. Things have changed. I need to let the night that led me here go, as hard as that may be.
Once I catch sight of the Coliseum and Lloyd Center, my body loosens up. We’re getting closer to home.
GPS gives directions, but Marcus navigates the streets like he knows them well. I hold back from asking if he’s from my neighborhood. I’d rather believe Marcus was just an old-school dude from Black Portland watching out for me. Not somebody who’s just got a lot of Black and brown kids he calls son.
Marcus veers off route, cutting through the good Popeyes parking lot. Damn I’d love me some Popeyes right about now. I sip more coffee to smack the flavor of butter biscuits and spicy chicken sandwiches out my mouth.
“I’ll go over everything with your family, then follow up with your parents. The paperwork said your mom’s a nurse at a hospital?”
“At Legacy Emanuel.” He knows this, but I play along. “Won’t be home until five a.m., though.”
We get closer to the edge of my grandparents’ neighborhood down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, near my dad’s bookstore. Malcolm’s Bookshop is tucked between a coffee shop and Salt and Straw ice cream, which has a line down the street that blocks the bookstore’s entrance.
I sit up to catch a glimpse of my dad as the open sign flashes in the window, but all I see is the faded Black History Month sign he drags out every year. Books on Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks are front and center to catch people’s attention. The rest of the display is filled with writers I’ve known my whole life: Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ralph Ellison, Nikki Giovanni, and new releases.
Dad’s gotta be on cloud nine because it’s a leap year, which gives him one extra day for his best sales month. The month he always reminds me is still the shortest of the year.
I can’t say for sure it’s him when someone passes the window. The truth is, I don’t know if I want it to be him. Because if it is, that means he’s not waiting at home for me. If it isn’t, then I’ll have to pretend not to see the disappointment behind his smile when Marcus goes over the program rules.
When the light turns green, I distract my brain with sights of the old and new.
“Things keep changing,” I say, to no one.
I’ve been gone two months, but it feels like a lifetime. The vibe’s all different. Like it’s a dream and I only got part of the details right. And even though I know this view, the colors seem wrong. Red doors and trims. Stakes lodged in grass with security signs. Little things I want to remember from the past to anchor me, to let me know I still belong, but it’s all just out of reach.
“Yeah. Blink of an eye. But it ain’t so bad,” Marcus says. “I mean . . . I’m lucky, I guess. My parents passed their place down to me. My family, though, they tried to get me to cash out, but that won’t ever be me. We gotta keep ours. Get that generational wealth.”
I take stock of Marcus, ready to connect to him on some other level. Because I feel all that, the way my grandparents are trying to hold on here. Not let a white rich family push them to cash out on the only place they were allowed to make a home in the first place. But the tightness of plastic around my ankle stops me from responding.
Marcus turns down my grandparents’ block—filled with manicured lawns and renovated solar roofs. Stoops fixed up, but empty of people on the porch.
“Yeah, this is nice, but . . .”
“Something like that,” I mumble.
Marcus points. “That their house?”
“Yeah, that’s it.”
Relief washes over me that my grandparents’ house looks the same, even with fresh paint. Mom said Dad took a whole month to do it. And it looked good, but she wasn’t going to tell him because he complained about his back the entire time. I laughed, but inside couldn’t help but worry these changes meant my grandparents were next to leave the neighborhood.
Two lanky white kids dash across the street and Marcus slams his brakes, causing a puddle to splash around us. Marcus honks his horn before pulling into my grandparents’ driveway. Brian Whitaker flashes an apologetic grin before swiping his blond hair out of his eyes. Like always, he’s unfazed even though he was milliseconds away from catastrophe. Lockstep, Gavin Davis smiles and waves. Then he takes off down the street. Seeing me is no big deal, it’s as if I never left. Nothing bad ever happens to Gavin, no matter what he does.
“Damn. That was close,” Marcus says.
I do a double take when I see Grandma Jackson waiting on the porch. She clasps her hands together when she sees me and I let out a loose smile, one I’ve been holding on tight to since New Year’s Day. Grandpa waits in the doorway wearing his faded green Vietnam Vet hat, patient as usual.
I grab my crumpled-up duffel bag and step out the car with my hood on to block the rain.
Grandma Jackson wastes no time coming down the porch steps. She throws her arms around me and I melt into her soft skin. Not letting go until I take everything in. From her feeling like she shrunk, to the rose scent coming from her shirt she must’ve line-dried before the rain.
Copyright © 2023 by Kim Johnson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.