When I was small, maybe 4 or 5 years old, my mother had a friend named Jean. Jean was a robust and tough, a single Black woman who worked a man’s job at McDonnel Douglass. She’d come by after work in her work pants and boots. When she untied her bonfire bronze and oiled hair it would revolt high and bright into a foot or more of angry sermon, ornate with coarse adjectives and other uncomfortable truths. She was a formidable light skinned woman with small freckles, more like a lion wearing her denim and dirt. Ask her ex-husband who tried to make her mouth and countenance match her looks. He swore he never fought her back, that he took it easy on her, that she snuck up on him, caught him drinking a beer… and that’s how he got the stitches and chipped tooth.
Jean had a tall son named Tim. Tim was 15 and wayward, a switch, a sting. He fancied himself a gangster. He was too cool for school. We were visiting Jean one day when two short buff Brothas came to her door. They asked for Tim. She asked what they wanted him for. One said, “To fold him up.” The other pointed to his chin and stared at the staunch truth of it. Jean looked at the two young men for a moment, thought of the gun she kept at the front door in the desk drawer, or the sawed off shotgun she kept loaded and hidden in the length of the plastic ferns. She said, “Ok, Tim is here. And ya’ll want to fight him? But there’s two of ya’ll, you see? Now, I’m gonna bring Tim out to go one on one with ya’ll. Not no bullshit two on one, you hear me?” They nodded. She said, “Now, one of ya’ll fight him at a time. If I see two of you on him at once, one of you niggas gonna get your head blown off, you hear me?” She looked into their eyes for a few very cold moments. They understood and nodded.
Jean called for Tim. His door opened and he came meandering up the hall. “Tim, you know these boys?” The boys’ faces tensed at the sight of Tim. Their cool eyes had been waiting to see him and they bulged, dreaming violence. “Naw, Momma, these dudes could be anybody.” “Well Tim, how they know your name and where you live?”
“I don’t know, Momma. Somebody could have told them.” Jean was incensed. “Tim, goddammit, you bringing this street shit to my house, to where I lay my head!” Momma, I aint brought nothing here…” Jean looked at the two young men, still revving in their skin but afraid to pass her body to reach Tim. “Tim, here’s what’s gonna happen. We’re gonna settle this shit today. You’re gonna fight these niggas and it’s gonna be over.” She looked at the young men and asked, “If we do this, will this shit be over?” “Yes,” they said. “Here and out there in the neighborhood?” They reiterated, “Yes Ma’am.”
Jean waved for the boys to back up. They did. And she pushed Tim out of the front door beyond the porch. Tim had taken a few Karate classes. Martial arts was very popular then. We gathered in the living room window, my mother, my brothers, and I. Tim began a Shou Lin warm up that puzzled us all, including the two boys. One of the boys approached and Tim threw an overhand chop. He yelled for emphasis. But the chop was strange and meaningless. Tim got pushed into the hedges bordering the walk to the front door. He was chopping like the oil derricks in Long Beach, and they rained down like a ferris wheel, but none landed. Tim tried a kick. But the dude caught it and had Tim on one leg, hopping. He threw Tim in the air and he landed on his back, catching an immediate ghetto stomp to the sternum.
They had gone through the hedges onto the lawn. Tim, on all fours, was trying to recover his breath. He was crawling. The other boy came in and let Tim get up. He initiated his own special damage, hit Tim in the face. Knocked him out of the yard to where Tim fell between two cars. They were in the street now, with Tim getting hit by everything. He fought back but was just too long and skinny. He was suffering a beating. They came back across the street, along the cars. The sounds of the blows carried in the bend of the street like castanets in an empty cathedral. Tim was sideways and off center. The beating was clean, not a frenzy. There was an economy of blows landed, each one with its own grievance and country of origin. Things slowed to a lecture punctuated by strikes. They were walking and admonishing Tim. Tim was crawling on the sidewalk at the front of the house. He seemed to be incredulous at the amount of blood from his nose and mouth. The blood was red on the sidewalk and black on the green grass. Jean saw Tim was no longer responding to the blows, just sitting there and taking them flush about his head, not even lifting his hands. We were screaming when Jean stepped out onto the lawn. “That’s enough.” The two boys, winded from the elongated beating, agreed and backed away from over Tim’s spent body. “You two niggas got what you come for?” “Yes Ma’am.” They could hardly answer her. One had gone over and draped himself on the brick wall, breathing with his mouth open.
Time stopped. Jean was on the lawn where Tim was, we were framed in the summer window like the skin frames a scar, and the two young men had gathered their shirts and were leaving the yard. Jean lifted Tim. When he got to his feet he shrugged her off, went into the house, down the hall, and slammed his bedroom door. Jean came back inside to face us. “I’m sorry, Evelyn, and to all ya’ll kids for letting you see that.” She pulled me to her and wiped my eyes, “But Tim runs his mouth out there and someone’s gonna kill him. At least if it happens here he has a friend.” She started to cry herself, “We just gotta make it through these years.”
Four years later, after many brushes with the law, Tim went on a robbing spree and killed four people. He’s been incarcerated since the late 70’s.