Presented by Jen Michalski for [PANK]
“Lawrence Loves Somebody on Pratt Street”
~by Jen Grow
When I come to the door, Aunt Gloria’s got her rosary in one hand, thumbing through it like she’s shelling beans. She says she saw it on the T.V. about Lawrence’s unit. “They been hit over there in that big sand pit,” she says. Then she wipes at her eyes with a tissue. She rocks forward in her chair for momentum and leans all her weight on her cane to lift herself up. She hobbles over to the T.V.
“Aunt Gloria, don’t you get up. Make JJ switch the channel for you. He’s sitting right there.”
Aunt Gloria don’t say nothing. She changes the channel and waits for the next news to say something different. She wants the first news to be a mistake. I stand there in the doorway and watch the news with her. We don’t speculate much out loud but inside I know we’re both wondering about Lawrence and if he’s still alive. But we’re quiet with JJ in the room. JJ sits in the corner on the floor looking at his car magazines and telling stories to hisself. He can’t read except a few words and his mind’s not right on account of huffin shoe polish when he was little. Now he’s thirty-six but that don’t mean nothing.
“Maybe Lawrence is ok,” I say to Aunt Gloria. “We don’t know. Maybe he’ll call.”
“Maybe he will,” she says. “God help us if there’s two soldiers come knock on our door. That’s when we know there’s bad news for certain. In the meantime we pray.”
Then she starts to hum under her breath, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” and gently rocks herself in her chair even though it don’t move. It’s like that hymn is her oxygen.
“That’s right,” I say and I reach out to hold her hand with the bent fingers that’re curled up like a bird’s claw.
When my two kids come running inside from playing on the porch, Aunt Gloria don’t say nothing more about Lawrence. She tells me, “Wanda, go down to Ditto’s Lounge and get us a pizza for dinner. We need something.” She reaches for her pocket book, which she keeps on the floor right next to her chair. She gets out her change purse and hands me a couple of dollars. “And, a course,” she whispers, “get us a order of onion rings,” and she nods her head toward you know who.
JJ looks up. “Rings!” he says. “I want rings!” He suddenly stirs away from his car magazine.
“Onion rings!” my two boys join in. They’re young, four and five, and they jump on JJ and try to tickle him. “Onion rings!” they laugh.
But JJ don’t like when they bother his things. He says, “Stop!” and gets a look because they wrinkled his magazine. “Stop!” he says again. My kids get in fights with JJ all the time. They play with the same toys, the robots and the plastic soldiers because they’re mentally about the same age, except JJ could throw them against the wall if he wanted to.
“Mind your uncle,” I say. “Stop jumping,” and then I leave out the front door and go down to Ditto’s to I get us a pizza. I don’t even order myself a drink in the bar, but instead I wait outside against the brick wall. I watch the cars pass on Lombard Street and beyond that, I see these boys who are older than mine, roaming the streets in a pack, a couple of them on bicycles that they got from somewheres. They’re going to be bad news when they get older, I can tell. Hate to say it though, because there’s always hope. But then again I seen years of watching the neighborhood go down. So I say a little good luck prayer for them and cross my fingers that somehow they get straightened up. Or find some other way out.
We was just kids when Aunt Gloria gathered all us up. First me, Lawrence and Kinny, then later, our cousin JJ. Aunt Gloria come to our old house with her shopping cart and a handful of plastic bags for our clothes and toys. She made us wear our winter coats and told us to follow her. That was the last time we seen our old house. Our parents were gone anyway, so we went to her house where she had real curtains in the front window, not just a sheet, and some flowers in a jar on the table and she had a tiny metal fenced-in backyard for us to play in.
She got JJ because his daddy roamed the streets and got hisself arrested a few times. JJ’s daddy would lock JJ in the closet to keep him safe. Except there was tins of shoe polish in a box, and you can guess what happened with it. JJ was just nearly a baby when he did that, a toddler. He didn’t know no better. But a course, it affected his head and he’s been slow ever since.
JJ’s daddy– he is Aunt Gloria’s brother, Al—he ended up homeless and ever once in a while we see him. The last time we seen Al, about five or six years ago, he was out on the street asking cars for money. He might be dead now, we don’t know. Our parents were practically the same as Al. But then Daddy died first, and Mama run off to Chicago somewheres and a few years later we got notice that she was found dead too. At least we know.
It must a been a heartbreak for Aunt Gloria to seen all these little kids, her nieces and nephews, without nothing. She raised us and combed our hair and made us go to school.
We listened to Aunt Gloria, too, and both me and Lawrence graduated from high school. (Except, me in the same year as Lawrence because I flunked twice.) But Aunt Gloria made me keep going till I finished. She had a harder time with Kinny. But Kinny is getting his G.E.D. now and working as a mechanic apprentice. When he was a boy, he was real friendly. He’d talk to just about anyone, and curious, too. He’d follow people around and not even know them, or else he’d roam on his own and get lost. You’d turn for one second and Kinny’d be gone. Half the time, we didn’t know where he went.
One day me and Lawrence and Aunt Gloria went looking for him, knocking on doors and asking neighbors to send Kinny home. Me and Lawrence, we was about eight and ten years old and Aunt Gloria held both us tight by the hand even though we was too old for hand holding. But she wouldn’t let us go and I could tell it wasn’t a good idea to fight against her. She walked us down the streets we was not allowed to be on by ourselves and we passed this boarded house that got spray painted in big letters. It said, RIP Hanky. On the sidewalk, there was balloons and a stuffed bear and candy boxes and lighters and empty cartons a cigarettes and dried up candles. By then, me and Lawrence knew what R.I.P. meant. We seen it in other places, all of them makeshift altars painted on walls. But a course, I was curious and I stopped to look.
I bent down and reached toward the stuffed bear. Aunt Gloria yanked my hand and goes, “Wanda, that ain’t yours. That belongs to some dumbass that got themselves shot.” She sounded angry when she said it. “They gone and joined the stupid club,” she spit. I stood up straight and we was quiet for a few steps. Then Aunt Gloria stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and turned to face us. She was fuming, like we was in trouble just for wanting a bear, and she said, “Lawrence, LaWanda, I never want to see neither one of you get yourself in with a gang. I ain’t never going to a funeral for drugs.” Lawrence and me just looked at each other and blinked, but Aunt Gloria didn’t wait for us to say nothing. She just charged up the hill pulling us by the hand to look for Kinny.
Now I realize, that’s the one time I got a glimpse of what Aunt Gloria must feel about her brother Al and our parents. She told us they loved us when they was alive. But she’s got this secret other side that is angry.
Kinny’s got this secret side, too. Something happened a year ago and he got real serious. Now he’s trying to stay out of trouble. That means he comes inside at night away from the streets to hang with the family, which is me and JJ and Aunt Gloria and my two boys. And Lawrence before Lawrence joined the Army. Kinny don’t say much and is strict with my boys, sometimes for no reason. He’s got something inside him that don’t know how to get out, and he’s got a hole in his side where he’s been shot once. Now the hole is all growed over, a bump on his skin that’s raised like he’s got a grape underneath. Or an eyeball. He seen everything in a whole new way after that. And he’s lucky Aunt Gloria let him back in the house. She don’t put up with foolishness.
When the onion rings and pizza are ready, I take the steaming box home to Aunt Gloria and JJ and my boys. Then Kinny comes in from his job, all greasy in his mechanic jump suit, and we eat slices of pepperoni pizza on paper plates and drink red punch. Aunt Gloria and me, we don’t say nothing out of the ordinary. We act like it is just another day. Later, we tell Kinny what we heard on the T.V. and he just nods slowly and don’t say nothing.
After dinner, the boys wrestle in the living room and we watch the T.V. just like any other night. But everything in the house is got an air of waiting. Like it’s holding its breath.
Pretty soon, Kinny goes upstairs and takes a shower and goes to bed early.
Then I put my boys to bed and Aunt Gloria hobbles into in her room and she shuts the door. But I seen the light underneath and I know she’s reading the Bible. After awhile, JJ goes down into the basement on his cot and then it’s just me.
I dust Lawrence’s picture we got hanging on the wall and the other one propped up on top of the radiator, the one where he’s in his dress uniform all handsome, and I think how proud he we all was. We thrown a party for him before he got shipped out, but it wasn’t that many people come except us. Lawrence always keeps to hisself. He reads a lot and wants to go to school when he gets out the Army. That’s what keeps him going. He don’t have a girlfriend.
Except this one time when we was teenagers, he had a crush on this girl named Skinny Lisa for a long time. One day, Aunt Gloria come home from work in a huff. She sank down in the green chair and propped her feet up on the hassock and said, “Lawrence, who do you know on Pratt Street?”
Lawrence shrugged his shoulders “I don’t know.”
“That’s not what I hear,” Aunt Gloria said.
Kinny and I sneaked a peek at Lawrence. We knew all about Skinny Lisa. Except we didn’t know what Lawrence might a done with her to get Aunt Gloria mad.
Aunt Gloria goes, “I seen it scrawled in marker on a garage door in the alley: Lawrence loves somebody on Pratt Street.”
“I didn’t write that,” Lawrence mumbled and looked down at his hands. “That was somebody else.”
“Is it true?” Aunt Gloria said and she leaned forward to grab him by the pant leg in case he tried to squirm away.
“I didn’t write it,” Lawrence said again.
Kinny coughed. I knew who did it, but I didn’t say nothing and neither did Lawrence. We thought Aunt Gloria would explode through the roof if she found out one of us was writing graffiti on walls.
“No, I mean, is it true you love somebody on Pratt Street?” Then she laughed and laughed. “There’s nothing wrong with more love in this world,” she said.
Kinny and I looked up, surprised. We didn’t know whether to laugh or bust on Lawrence. But Lawrence was even more surprised and mostly embarrassed.
“You give that girl Lisa my regards,” Aunt Gloria said. “There are worse things that could be writ on walls about you. But I’m guessing somebody you know wrote it, so you might as well clean it up,” she said. “And take Kinny with you.” Then she let go of Lawrence’s pant leg and slapped Kinny on the back of his head, not hard, but hard enough to let him know he should a knowed better.
“Take a bucket of soapy water and a scrub brush with you, Kinny,” she said. “Clean it all the way.”
That’s what I think about now, while I wonder if Lawrence is been hit by a bullet or some bomb. I want to going down and see if his name is still on that garage door even though I know it’s painted over. I wish it was still there, though. A place I could visit and see that one time my quiet brother lived here in this neighborhood with us and that he loved a girl enough for all of us to know it. I want a place to visit him. But he’s so far away now, it don’t seem real.
I wander around the house and pick things off the floor. First, my boys’ clothes and toys and then I reach down and pick up these little pieces of lint and carpet, like I never seen them before. And while I’m down there, I seen little specs of sand that my boys must of brought in from the playground and I start on my hands and knees, like they’re the most important things in the world for me to pick up, these little grains, and I gather them in my palm like I’m supposed to put them back in the playground to keep the sand pile from disappearing. So I pick them up, one little grain at a time, and maybe it hardly makes a difference to the world if they’re missing, but on the other hand, I say to myself, Wanda, if all these little grains got carried off one by one, they wouldn’t be nothing left.
Jen Grow is the Fiction Editor of the Little Patuxent Review. Her short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle, Other Voices, The Sun Magazine, The GSU Review, Hunger Mountain, Indiana Review, and many others including the anthology City Sages: Baltimore (CityLit Press, 2010). Her collection My Life as a Mermaid and Other Stories was the 2012 winner of the Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Competition and is forthcoming in 2015. She co-authored the book, Seeking the Spirit (Morehouse Publishing, 2006) with Harry Brunett. She’s received two Individual Artist Awards from the Maryland State Arts Council, and her stories have earned nominations for Best New American Voices and a Pushcart Prize.