2nd excerpt of "SUNDAY BEST" by Lori D. Johnson
Curtis groans and tosses what's left of the partially chewed piece of toast. Leave it to Grandma Rose to shove him into the reluctant role of savior. Little does she know how much he himself is in need of rescue. Just last week he'd been fired from his first decent paying job. Typically Rose, a woman with a rep for taking in and nurturing strays, is no slouch when it comes to sensing discontent, whether his or anyone else's.
Silent, sullen and sorely unappreciative, the boy reminds Curtis too much of himself, or at least the self he'd been when he'd first landed on Grandma Rose and Old Man Lamar's doorstep--an event precipitated by his own mother's untimely demise.
Dead mamas--just another unfortunate thing he and the boy have in common. And both willful departures at that--one suicide, the other overdose. The more kind-hearted adults in his life had done their best to shield him. But even at the tender age of ten, Curtis had been able to see through the deceptive nicety of a term like "home-going." What kind of mother leaves for home without taking her kids with her?
During his stiff-legged trek up the stairs, Curtis is nearly trampled by the six year old twins, Tosha and Tiara, on their giggle-filled race down. A happy pair, they push past him, seemingly unfazed by the fact that their mother no longer occupies a space in the landing of the living.
While an enviable innocence to some, Curtis knows all too well the truth of how the woman the two youngsters had routinely referred to as "Mama" had seldom been one in any real sense of the word. Dope, like a thief in the night, who boldly returns by the light of day, had years ago snatched her away from them and everyone else who'd tried to love her.
The girls make Curtis think of his own little sister, Amanda, who’d barely been a year old when their mother had passed. Less than a week after the funeral, Amanda's daddy and some of his people had come and got her. Hit hard by the back-to-back losses, Curtis had cried for weeks. But even more devastating than either his baby sister's sudden whisking away or even his mother's willful departure had been the fact that no one had ever bothered to come for him.
Curtis's old room is where Mark has been bunking. On easing open the door and stepping inside, he finds the boy perched atop the cedar chest next to the window. He is a tall, skinny kid with the awkwardness of thirteen scrawled all over him like spray-painted graffiti.
"What's up?" Curtis says when Mark finally pulls his frown from the window and turns his head in his direction.
The boy is anything, but ready for church--the bottom of his shoes are caked with dirt; an unknotted tie, like the chain of a busted playground swing, dangles from his neck; his face could use a good scrubbing and his hair is a black, matted field of uncombed naps. But what strikes Curtis most are the boy's eyes, fixed, glazed and set back in hollow sockets, they are not unlike those of a blind man whose sight, at some point, had been forcibly removed. Rather than extend a verbal greeting, the boy nods and turns back toward the window.
Although it clings to the tip of his tongue, like the taste of freshly-cut lemon, "You all right?" strikes him as a stupid question. Curtis already knows how the kid feels--the same way he had--like a dumped sack of garbage with something horribly rotten on the inside.
He shoves his hands in his pockets and wonders what Grandma Rose could have been thinking in assigning him such a task. After a moment of coin-jiggling, foot-shuffling and longing desperately to run back in the direction from which he'd come, Curtis invites himself to a seat on the opposite end of the cedar chest and joins the boy in his silent sulk out onto the world. Not so long ago, he had spent many an hour in the very same spot, bottom buttressed to the worn wood and nose pressed against the pane. The windowed nook had proven an ideal one for eavesdropping, daydreaming or just pondering the complexities of life.
He tries to get a feel for the boy's take on the second story view--a view dominated in large part by the church next door. A friend of the family once commented on how overwhelming it must be to wake up every morning and go to bed every night with a steeple staring down on you.
Overwhelming for whom? Certainly not Grandma Rose, who takes full advantage of her proximity to the Lord's house. Be it for Sunday school, eleven o'clock service, Monday night prayer vigil, mid-week Bible study, choir rehearsal, or one of her various committee meetings, she makes a point of walking through the doors of the church at least once before the day is done.
Had it not been for Old Man Lamar, Curtis knows chances are, he would have ended up a bonafide 'Dudley-Do-Right' type or else, thoroughly ambivalent about donning the cloak of discipleship. The Old Man had provided him with the balance necessary to understand that doing the work of the church and living for the Lord weren't always the same thing.
He couldn't help but feel that an "Old Man Lamar" was really what Mark needed; someone with shoulders big enough to lean on in hard times; someone who in twenty words or less could tell the boy all he'd ever need to know. In spite of his intimacy with death, what Curtis knew exceeded his ability to articulate. Silence and companionship were about all he felt capable of offering.
Besides, the boy didn't appear in the mood for words, however profound, poetic or potentially life-altering. The thought took Curtis back to that first conversation between him and his cousin Rodger.
He'd been sitting alone in the very same room when his bowed head cousin had slunk in. "I-I-I'm sorry 'bout yo-yo-yo your Mama," is what Rodger had finally sputtered after what must have been a full minute of standing and sniffling.
"What the hell you got to be sorry for?" is what a ten-year old Curtis had snapped back. "You didn't kill her, did you?"
A candy apple red Lexus pulls into the church parking lot and Mark's dulled pupils suddenly flicker. He bolts forward, as if adhering to a drill sergeant's "a-ten-hut," and bangs his forehead against the window pane in the process.
"Look at him," Mark says as the driver, dressed in a yellow pinstriped, grape juice colored, three piece suit exits the car. "Son-of-a-bitch really thinks he's somethin', don't he?"
Though they lean toward concurrence, Curtis elects not to express his thoughts aloud. After all, the purple-clad SOB in question just so happens to be Mark's father--Jared--or J.D. as he prefers to be called.
J.D’s wife and their three young sons follow him out of the car. Not only do the boys’ dark, shiny, moon-pie faces, mirror their dad’s, they’re dressed just like him, too. In a leg-dragging strut across the parking lot and up the church steps, they fall in behind him, like soldiers, pledges or robots, one grinning, big bobbing head after the other.
At the parade’s end, Mark turns to Curtis, and with his eyes ablaze says, “Ain’t you gon’ say nothin’?”
Curtis has half a mind to tell the boy, “So, your Pop’s a jackass. Truth be known, your Moms wasn’t a heck of a lot better.” But rather than voice a truth the child might not be ready to handle, Curtis stares out the window and lets several seconds pass before he stands and says, “Let’s go for a ride.”