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Finally Free: Chapters 1-3

Chapter 1

Awkward Normal

My memories begin at the tender age of three, when I barely escaped death.

It was around 7.30 a.m. on a frigid school morning. My older siblings, Nakisha, Michael and Tylena, had just left for school. Another sister, four-year-old Tawanna, and I were up watching cartoons. Our youngest sister, two-year-old Latiah, was sleeping in the bedroom with my mother and her boyfriend. Within minutes of my siblings' departure for school, a fire started to blaze in the living room.

I sat paralyzed, unable to understand what was happening. Tawanna raced to my mother's room to wake up our loved ones. She almost tripped over her own feet she was running so fast. Her tiny hands were trembling from fear and nerves as she shook my mother, trying to get her attention.

Heavily breathing she panted, “Mommy! Mommy there's a fire!”

My mother and her companion woke up in a panic. Their hair still fuzzy from the static of the pillows, they got out of bed to the smell of burning furniture. We did not have a phone, so they ran to a neighbor's apartment to call 911, leaving us behind in the process.

Tawanna and I screamed in fear as the fire grew like a flaming monster. Latiah just sat on the bed; she was too young to notice the impending danger.

It was not long before the flames engulfed the couch, spreading to the carpet and curtains, burning through everything on its path of destruction. The heat from the combustion quickly warmed the cold air coming in from outside, and dark clouds of smoke sat over our heads, like a thunderstorm on the horizon. The mere act of breathing was so difficult it seemed like climbing Mount Everest. I must have fainted or maybe even lost consciousness, because what I remember next is more like a dream than reality.

In my imagination, I sailed out of our high project building window, like Dumbo, soaring towards a fireman's trampoline. As I landed, a firefighter scooped me up and returned me to my mother's arms unharmed. Then we stood outside the apartment, waiting for Latiah to also be thrown to safety.

In reality, I know I wrapped my arms tightly around a fireman's neck as he made his way down the lengthy ladder. Tawanna escaped an early death the same way. Then we were placed in an ambulance, where the paramedics rushed us to the hospital to treat burn wounds and heavy smoke inhalation. Unfortunately, Latiah Renee, did not survive the tragic accident.

When she died that morning, a piece of my mom died as well. We were at the hospital when they informed us of our loss. I was too young to understand the meaning of death. I thought I would be able to see my sister again; as soon as I left the hospital.

My mother knew the meaning and had a hard time coping with the loss. She cried and cried, like a starving baby who had not eaten in days. The horrific incident mentally paralyzed my young mother for a very long time. She wandered around like a zombie for weeks, without much compassion or affection for the rest of her children. After the death of her youngest daughter, she was a 25-year-old single mother of five children - including one accused of igniting the fire.

My brother Michael, whom we called Ching because of his unusual Chinese features, became the scapegoat for the incident. He had been playing with matches earlier that morning.

Nakisha startled him when she called his name, “Ching, come on before we're late for school.”

In a hurry, he panicked and threw the book of matches in between the cushions of the sofa, sparking the blaze.

Looking back, it was not fair to blame my brother for the tragedy. When one examine the situation, what they will find is an unsupervised child who let his curiosity get the better of him that morning. He made a mistake, which he whole-heartedly regrets. Unfortunately for my brother, he did not have a family who could rationalize the situation; instead, we just pointed fingers.

After the incident, when Ching tried to talk to my mother or asked her for help on his homework, she ignored him as if his body were a spirit in a shadowy form. Thinking she did not hear him he would ask again, “Ma, can you help me on my homework?”

Then my mother would get annoyed with him, and instead of addressing him by his name, she permanently changed it to the profanity of her choosing. Ching would stand frozen by the hatred he felt from our mother.

“Get away from me stupid. If you weren’t playing with those goddamn matches, none of this crap would have happened,” she often reminded him.

Hearing her lay the blame solely on him, gave us license to tease him day in and day out; hoping that if we treated him as she did, then maybe she would not treat us as poorly.

“You killed our sister!” we shouted at him. “You're ugly and stupid; that's why we don't love you.” We even made a song to hurt his feelings, “Ching Chong Bald Spot is his name,” we sang gleefully as tears rolled down his eyes. We constantly made fun of his noticeable bald spot, belittling him and lowering his self-esteem. Sometimes he tried to defend himself, but with all the siblings on our mother's side, he was outnumbered and overpowered, forcing him to go into a shell.

My mother acted as the ring leader. She normally cussed and yelled at all of us, using vulgar and degrading words so mean they made us not want to be alive. But after the fire, Ching was the primary victim of her chronic verbal abuse, unleashing a fury of profanity and insults on him that added to the fire of evil that already burned inside his soul.

She frequently locked him in the small closet in the kitchen while she went to work, preventing him from any other unfortunate incidents, besides hurting himself. Before she left she warned us, “Do not let him out! No matter what.”

We happily listened to our mother's commands, enjoying the control we had over him. If he had to use the bathroom, so what? If he were hungry, oh well. If he cried or begged, we just made fun of him.

We perpetually picked fights with him, and then ganged up on him if he managed to gain control of the fight. As children, we mentally and emotionally sabotaged our brother, which caused him to have major psychological problems well into his adulthood. During his adolescence, he snapped the necks of numerous pet cats to release anger, especially when we ganged up on him or got him into trouble.

*****

As the years progressed, picking on Ching eventually got old; plus he intimidated us with his cruelty. Without Latiah, I was the new youngest and therefore, the next target for the rest of my siblings. At five-years-old, they felt our mother favored me; always giving me what I wanted, whenever I wanted it. In my mind, I was the one constantly getting beat, regardless of whether or not I did what I was accused of doing. To be fair, I admit I would get into a lot of mishaps, from as young as a toddler. Whether I was starting a fight with a sibling or a neighbor, or using the profanity I constantly heard my mother say.

Collectively, each member of my household did his or her own share of “dirt” or inappropriate behavior. We did not always get caught in the act; but when a certain misdoing, whether it was missing money or something being broken, came to light, someone had to take the fall.

Based on our past behavior, my nine-year-old brother and I did not have much credibility behind our stories or answers. We were presumed guilty. Nakisha, being the eldest at ten, was often reprimanded by our mother for the sole fact that she was the oldest and should have known better. Six-year-old Tawanna was my favorite; mainly because we spent a lot of time together while my other siblings were at school. She was either a key piece in the plot or knew nothing about the incident. With decent credibility, she escaped a beating more often than not.

Tylena... well, Ty was untouchable as a child, hardly ever getting punished. Her credibility was considered golden. At the age of eight, she was a 12-person jury - all by herself. When she said someone did something, that was that. Case over; we were guilty. Our sentence: lashes from a tree twig, a belt, or whatever was close enough for my mother to administer justice.

My mom believed that Ty was an angel and always told the truth. She was not the only one; most adults considered her as shy, quiet and soft-spoken. My siblings and I knew better. Ty was as sneaky as they came. She would eat all the chocolate ice cream and tell my mother it was gone, making it seem as though she had discovered it, rather than being the guilty party. She was a mastermind manipulator with long sharp nails, which she used as her primary weapon. I hated fighting with her because I would always wind up with multiple scratches on my body, especially my face as it seemed she loved to showcase her work. She would dig deep into my skin like a miner looking for diamonds, cutting down to the white meat. The burning sensation from the cut was enough to make me weep as blood began to cover the white with red. For that reason alone, she was the one sibling I always wanted on my side during conflicts. Since my mom was almost never around, conflicts and fighting was a lifestyle I quickly grew accustomed to. It was normal for us.

Our fights were never fair. We were either ganged up on, or we formed an alliance with other siblings in an effort to try and outnumber the other side. That was how it was in our home. One minute we were best buds and the next we were bitter rivals. Alliances changed from day to day. My best friend on Friday would be my hated rival by the time we watched cartoons on Saturday morning. When we needed or wanted something from a sibling, we would be on their “good side” to conspire or form a bond with them. When we did not need them or their services, they were the scapegoat to blame for whatever mischief we created.

This happened on a daily basis: fighting and then befriending the person we had just thrown under the bus, just to do it again the next day. It came to a point where I did not care if I got blamed and punished with a painful beating. I quickly became immune to the pain and learned to cry just to make it stop. I also became immune to the pain of my favorite sibling conspiring to get me in trouble, because she knew I would eventually forgive her.

I grew tired of the constant sibling rivalry and always getting blamed for wrongdoings I did not commit, so I learned to venture off on my own. That way there were no co-defendants or witnesses (or whatever role my siblings were going to play that day). Although I felt like an outcast growing up, I am pretty sure that each of my siblings felt the same in their own way.

There was no family unity in our home. We did not eat dinner together or play well together. There was no guidance, only consequences. This atmosphere led to me being extremely undisciplined and disobedient, and the lack of structure meant I did not do well in organized settings or events.

Our home life was also extremely unstable, moving into different apartments by the seasons, especially after my baby sister passed. There must have been at least eight different moves in three years, mostly in or around the Hartford area, although we did move outside of the city and state. We lived in Waterbury, Connecticut, we relocated north to Springfield, Massachusetts, and also northwest to Albany, New York. Sometimes we lived alone; other times we moved in with extended family members.

We gladly accepted all the help we could get, from clothes, shelter, food, and anything else. My mother received government assistance: food stamps, WIC, and Section 8 housing, but we still struggled. It was extremely hard for us to maintain and manage our own home when we had one. Our apartments were routinely dirty, with mice and roaches hanging out with us like family members. New clothes were a rarity; hand-me-downs were the norm, even from sister to brother and vice-versa. Food came and went on a monthly cycle; there would be what seemed to us like tons of food in the house for the first couple of weeks, however as the end of the month approached, food supplies would be scarce. Butter, government cheese, and empty bottles of condiments would be the only items in the refrigerator.

Sometimes my mother would beat us for eating all the food or her favorite snacks. I can still hear her loud voice screaming at us.

“Who the hell ate all the goddamn ice cream?” she would ask as she hungrily grabbed the empty container from the freezer. “I can't have nothing with you greedy kids around.”

I would normally be on her bed watching Press Your Luck or Supermarket Sweep with her. She would take her frustration out on me and hit me upside my head, then yell, “Get the hell away from me.”

During the final week or two of the month, we ate cereal and milk for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, instead of balanced cooked meals. Other times, we survived off Ramen Noodles, or hotdogs and pork and beans for days on end. When those options ran out, there would be no meals. When that occurred we tried to eat the strangest things ever imagined, including fried cigarette butts.

Three things saved us from starving. First, was the ability to improvise and make syrup sandwiches, mayonnaise and pepper sandwiches, or just balled up pieces of bread (fortunately we usually had at least bread in the house). Secondly, there was my mother's “friend” who would bring us Happy Meals from McDonald’s, pizza, or other fast food dinners that we instantly devoured. Then, there was my father: Michael Gary Hodges.

He would come by with anything from catfish to pig's feet and cook one of the best meals of the month. After we destroyed the main meal, he topped it off with a batch of his famous homemade cinnamon and sugar donuts.

 I often wished he would come home and stay, but that never happened. However, there was a time in my teens when he stayed with us on the couch; while my mom had a live-in boyfriend... things were normally awkward in our household.

Chapter 2

My Dad

“Aye, pass me my thang-thang from the counter,” my father would slur to one of us while sitting on the living room couch.

I would run to get his thang-thang before my siblings did. I gladly grabbed the bottle of Red Irish Rose he had left on the kitchen counter and took a sip before I handed it to him, “Here you go daddy.”

“Thank you son,” he would reply, then take a swig. “Here, drink some before your mother comes back,” he offered as he watched us while she was at work. I had not turned 6 yet, but if it was good enough for my father, it was good for me.

My dad was a tall, thin, dark-skinned, handsome, slick-talking alcoholic. He is known by family and friends for two words: “thang-thang.” Everything was a “thang-thang,” from his bottle of liquor to his coat. A pencil was a thang-thang; a phone was a thang-thang; even his hustle he called a thang-thang. I think he had been drinking and using drugs for so long he forgot the name of simple items, so instead he just called everything a “thang-thang.” Somehow it worked, because every time he mentioned a “thang-thang” we knew exactly what he was referring to.

I thought I had a horrific beginning to my life, with my sister dying at an early age, but my father's life began even more tragically than mine. Both of his biological parents had passed away before he entered grade school. This caused him anguish and sadness I could not fathom. To ease the pain, he started drinking shortly after the incident. I, William Malcolm McClendon, was named after his father, but he called me Duke, a nickname from a nickname.

My dad fathered approximately 15 children, some of whom I have never met. Because of the extensive amount of child support he owed, he never had a legit job with a steady payroll. He was a remarkably good carpenter in his day, being paid cash under the table, but he was a much better small-time hustler. His motto was, “tryna make a buck.” He could make a buck out of anything. From drugs, stolen goods, bottles and cans, unwanted items, or even just by talking to a person. I understood - nothing was given to my dad, so he was always on a come-up, doing whatever he could do to make a buck and feed his kids.

He would take us to the corner stores and let us grab whatever chips or snacks we desired. Assuming he was going to pay for them, we would try to hand them to him saying, “Here, daddy! Can you buy me these?”

Flashing us a look of disbelief, he would whisper, “You better put those in your pocket if you want 'em.”

We obeyed. He would then purchase some meat, and we would walk out of the store with pockets full of goodies to go along with our dinner. After the first time, there we no more questions asked.

*****

I never did a lot of the things that the average son does with his father. He never took me to a ballgame, although he did take Tawanna and I to a televised WWF wrestling match for our birthdays, which were five days apart.

“Daddy! Look! The Undertaker!” I said as the Deadman walked down the aisle.

My dad did not teach me how to drive, as neither he nor my mother had a vehicle while I was growing up. He did not have the resources to do many things; sadly he did not have much to give. But if my dad were given a second chance to live his life, I believe he would have had a stable job to take care of his family, because there is no doubt in my mind we were his priority. Before a female, he put us first. Before an addiction, he put us first. Before a bad habit, he put us first. He did whatever he could do for his children, with the little that he had. That was my dad.

He was always on the move, not sitting still long enough to get comfortable before he was back out the door. I do not remember my dad driving a car and he despised getting on the city bus. I do not know if it were giving up his “buck” or his “come-up” mentality; thinking of the things he could have potentially came across in pursuit of his journey, but he, and we, walked everywhere.

Despite the instability, each encounter with my father was an adventure. Occasionally, we would walk to the Connecticut River where he fished for dinner. He was a pretty good fisherman too. On the way back home, or sometimes before he fished, he would unexpectedly throw us over the bridge in the river. As we splashed in the water it was either sink or swim. I learned how to swim at an early age, although, each time my rapid heart beat and heavy breathing reflected how I felt. However, when he walked home with us, fried the fish, and made those donuts, it became an unforgettable day.

*****

My father hardly lived with us, but he spent as much time as he could with us, especially his boys. I loved when he would take my brother and I with him on his journey across town. We walked from one part of Hartford to the other, then back home. However, it was always worth the sweat and exhaustion. My dad knew everyone and everyone knew my dad. We spent most of the day on Capen and Garden Streets at the Fish Market, a local hangout.

It was either there or in transit when people would call out my dad’s name, “Aye Mike, Mike.”

As my dad stopped to talk to his associate, my brother and I always got excited, with smiles on our faces in anticipation of a couple of quarters or even a buck.

Right on cue, my father would say, “These are my boys, Ching and Duke.”

“Put it there,” his comrade would say with his hand held out. Once we gave him a low five, he would smile then say something in a Denzel Washington-type tone, like, “Alright” or “My man.” Then he would dig into his pockets, pull out change or a couple of dollar bills and hand them to us. We were our pop's hustle for the day, and neither of us cared.

My favorite journey was when we went to visit my father's uncle, known as Uncle Boy. He lived in a basement, with pipes running every which way throughout the interior, so we had to duck our heads and constantly watch where we were walking. But Uncle Boy was the best. Not only was he a fabulous cook, it seemed all he watched was wrestling. We were huge wrestling fans in the late '80s and early '90s. We would gather around the television, eating good food and enjoying the WWF or the WCW. After dinner, and having watched The Ultimate Warrior vs. Ravishing Rick Rude, or Sting vs. Ric Flair, we would say our good-byes. Uncle Boy would give us hugs and then hand us five or ten dollar bills. The joy and excitement alone gave us the strength to walk back home to the other side of town.

One night, on our way back from Uncle Boy's house, the police flagged us down with my mother sitting in the passenger seat.

“Yup, that's them right there,” she yelled as the police car came to a halt.

Since I was young at the time, I did not know what was going on. My day quickly turned from good to bad, as I watched my dad resisting the officer.

I remember him pleading with the cop.

“Those are my kids. I did not kidnap anybody,” he said, but the officer still placed him under arrest.

My brother and I went home with our mom and I remember thinking to myself, “Well at least we got a ride,” as I sat in the back of the uncomfortable squad car for the very first time.

I never understood why my mother called the police and told them that he kidnapped us. It was not one of those days when he took us into a local convenience store and created a diversion while we stuffed our pockets with snacks. The day I watched my father being hauled off to jail was as joyous as any other day with him. Unfortunately, this would not be the last time I would watch him being handcuffed and thrown into the back seat of a cruiser.

My dad spent a third of his life in prison. He was not always around when I was a child because of being an inmate, but I am 110% sure that my father loved me more than I loved him, and I loved him with all my heart. He would give me or my siblings the very last of whatever he had. This leads to the uniqueness of my dad. Although his southpaw parenting style was erratic, it was his own way of showing affection towards his children.

He never taught me about the birds and the bees; he never taught me how to tie a tie; he never taught me how to play a sport. Most of the things he taught me were street-wise and criminal-minded.

“Duke, if someone hits you, you hit them right back,” he insisted. “Don't come telling me, or a teacher, or nobody else. You can't let people think you're a punk or a tattle-tale.”

This information was invaluable where we lived. Hartford was full of crime, drug dealers and gang bangers, so being street-savvy was as important as knowing the alphabet. “In these streets you have to know how to survive, just being book-smart isn't going to cut it,” he would say.

Those words stuck with me like gum to the bottom of my shoe. He taught me great survival skills, which helped me overcome many of my rough circumstances. His words taught me toughness, but his actions taught me how to love, and how to love unconditionally.

Growing up, I arguably could doubt the amount of love my mom claimed she had for us. She constantly put other people or her habits before us. Whether it was choosing a man over her children, or leaving us alone with nothing to eat while she spent days at the casino. However, I could never doubt the amount of love my dad claimed he had for us. The difference between him and my mother was that he showed his feelings by example, not by words or excuses.

 My dad was not the best father, but given his circumstances, he was elite to me.

Chapter 3

Do-Man

My father was very unique, not just because he called everything a “thang-thang” or overcame not having parents to become a great father. He also came up with special nicknames for just about everyone. He rarely called people by their given name. Instead, he would make up his own nickname, especially for his loved ones. He would call us names that only he was allowed to repeat, without losing its special effect. My mother, he called Janette. I do not know where he got that name from. Maybe, like me, that was the name of the girl who got away. Kisha was shortened to Kish-Kish. Tylena was Lena, while everyone else called her Ty. Michael, he nicknamed Ching; then to have his personal name he called him Fling. Tawanna, whose middle name is Louise, he called Weezy, and he called me Duke, but nicknamed me Do-man.

During my childhood, the majority of the people in my life used Do-man, except school teachers and counselors. I remember having friends over, and they were shocked that my parents were calling me by my street name.

“Do-man, you better get in here and pick up these goddamn clothes before I knock you silly,” my mother threatened while I had company over.

My friend would say, “What! Your mom call you Do-man too?”

“Yup,” I'd respond matter-of-factly.

“Whoa that's phat. Your mother calls you by your street name,” he replied, like I just did a cool magic trick. Little did they know, that originated as my household name.

My father started calling me Do-man because I would get into anything and everything as soon as I learned how to crawl and walk. I was always “doing” something, from drinking his unattended alcohol, to being a dare devil toddler, jumping off beds and high surfaces when left unattended.

THUMP! “What the hell was that?” my father asked as he ran inside the living room, only to see me on the floor crawling towards his alcohol.

It seems I have been getting into trouble on a daily basis since I was born. With this reputation, and a nickname like Do-man, it was inevitable that I was always in trouble for “doing” something.

Personally, I hated the name because it did not have a good sound to it. Family members would switch it up and call me Doo Doo-Man, which annoyed me, often causing me to retaliate and say, or do mean things to them, only compounding the name.

“Come here Doo Doo-Man,” a cousin would tease.

“That's not my name you stupid idiot!” I yelled as I punched him in the stomach.

But I was Do-man whether I liked it or not. The name did fit me like a glove, plus my dad gave it to me. Being the man that he was, I proudly took anything handed down from him.

*****

In the year 1989, I was six years old. We were living on Bellevue Street in the north end of Hartford, not far from our old Bellevue Square project building where the fire occurred. I was attending Sands Elementary School and my first year of schooling was almost over as the summer quickly approached. Kindergarten was a good change of scenery for me, because I was able to interact with other children besides my siblings.

Since none of the other kids picked fights or antagonized me, I adjusted well and kept my disobedience to a minimum. As a result, I emerged as a good learner, able to easily do first and second grade work, especially mathematics. I do not know what I enjoyed most about school; the fact that it gave me a sense of belonging or the free lunch. I think it was lunch. We ate twice a day at home, sometimes only once, so an extra meal was like candy to me, no matter what was served. Since food was not always available during my youth; I quickly learned to eat, not taste, when something was not appetizing. So I was able to eat foods that other children pushed to the side. I ate theirs too. When school was over, it was back to normal for me. Go home and bother someone before someone bothers me, or I would play with my new hobby, a Nintendo.

First we had an Atari, but when I beat Tawanna's score in Pac Man, she slammed it down and broke the console, forcing my mom to upgrade. The Nintendo was a huge hit in my house. Even my mother loved to play Super Mario Bros and Tetris. Of course, we would fight over who played first, and no one wanted to give up the controller when they lost, but it was fun and it brought us together for a few hours.

My mother had to find a way to keep us occupied without driving her crazy. When we did fight over the video game or cause a ruckus in the house, she would force us outside. I was now old and agile enough to go out with my siblings and keep up with them. Running around our small apartments getting into trouble was no longer my only option. I began to roam the neighborhood with my brother and his friends.

“Ching, wait for me. I want to come with you,” I said as he was about to walk out the door.

“You bet... bett... better hurrrrry up,” Ching stuttered, which became a problem for him, and another reason to tease him.

We would get the downstairs' neighbor's children and walk down a small hill, across the street, then to the train tracks. There we played along the railroad, competing to determine who could throw rocks the farthest. The rocks along the railroad were perfect for throwing. They were neither too big nor too small. Almost all of them were extremely well-shaped and smooth. So there we were, four or five boys walking along the tracks, tossing rocks around, giving each other high fives, laughing and enjoying ourselves. When we were finished launching rocks through the air, the smell of the tracks stayed on our hands; a very distinct, strong aroma I can still smell to this day, not from my hands, but from the memories.

We quickly advanced from walking the tracks to climbing on top of buildings, a decision which left me legally blind. I was playing on top of a roof with my brother and our two downstairs' neighbors. Instead of rocks, we were throwing shingles at each other. Ching threw one directly at me. As I raised my forearm up to protect my face, a shingle hit me in my left eye. I started to cry and blood began to run down my cheek, before dripping on to my shirt. With one hand over my bleeding eye, I managed to make my way back down from the roof to our apartment, where I cried to my mother. Seeing the blood and tears, she quickly called 911 and an ambulance was dispatched.

Paramedics carted me inside the ambulance and sped to the hospital where I discovered my left pupil was severely damaged.

The doctor informed my mother about the seriousness of the injury. “Ms. McClendon, we will need to undergo immediate surgery in order to save the eyesight in William's left eye,” he said. “Do we have you permission to begin?”

“Yes!” my mom agreed while sniffling, wiping the tears from her cheek.

During the procedure, my pupil was shifted to the far left. Also, the surgery failed. They could not save sight in my eye. It died and I was declared legally blind in my left eye.

After spending a couple of days in the hospital eating all the ice cream I could manage, I was on my way back home. This time with half my vision and a crooked eye that could not move. It was not long before my siblings were making fun of me, calling me cross-eyed. Luckily, I was used to the verbal abuse, so I did not cry.

BAM! I punched my brother in the face.

He started to cry then yelled, “Ma. Do-man hit me.”

“Well, what did you do to him?” she'd ask, knowing the principles of cause and effect.

“Noth...,” he started to answer before I interrupted him.

“He keeps calling me cross-eyed,” I jumped in, hoping my mother would take my side.

“Y'all better stop bothering that damn boy,” she reasoned. “Then y'all wonder why he's always doing something to y'all.”

I knew my mother was on my side as I tried to adjust to just one working eye, which was difficult. Occasionally my left eye wandered further to the left. I did not notice because I could not see out of that eye; when I closed my right eye, my vision was extremely blurry, but onlookers would stare at me, thinking I was looking at them. This caused me to avoid eye contact with people. It became my biggest insecurity as I looked to the ground when talking to friends or I squinted my left eye, so the person could not see my pupil.

*****

My mom still struggled with bills, food and shelter. Before the summer was over, we were on the move once again. This time we moved in with my grandmother on Blue Hills Avenue. Several of our family members lived a few blocks down the street, so we were not limited to just playing inside grandma's house, which was a definite no-no. My grandmother was a church lady who watched soap operas and did not tolerate nonsense, especially arguing and fighting with each other. My mother knew my grandma's expectations and did not want her to kick us out because of our foolery.

“Y’all better stop running around in the goddamn house before I knock some damn sense in y'all,” my mother threatened before my grandmother got upset.

My grandmother had a big wooden fork and spoon set hanging in the kitchen, mostly for decoration, but to my mom it served as a tool to spank us with, whenever we got into trouble.

Around this time, Kisha was my grandmother's favorite grandchild and Ty was still considered an angel, leaving Ching, Tawanna and me to receive most of the hammering.

“Do-man, Ching, and Tawanna! Get y'all butts down here, so I can beat the fu... crap out of y'all,” my mother yelled, almost slipping up and cursing in grandma’s house, which was another no-no.

We would take our time getting to the living room, where my mom would lay us on the floor. When we knew we were about to get a spanking, we would run to the bathroom when our mother called our names. There, we got as much tissue as we could to pad our butts, hoping she did not expose our cushions.

Sometimes she demanded, “Pull your pants down,” when she really wanted us to feel her wrath as she pounded our butts with one of the wooden utensils.

*****

For all the abuse we endured, there were not many good moments we shared as a family to balance it out. The days with my father and roaming around the train tracks were the only times I remember having fun; until we were playing kickball in the backyard of my grandmother’s house. Byron and Bryant, whom we called B.Y and Booda, were two of the handful of relatives who lived close by. When it was five-year-old Booda's turn to kick, he kicked the ball pretty far then ran for first base. The ball got stuck in the corner of the yard. Booda, not knowing how good a kick he had whacked, stayed motionless at first base.

We yelled, “Booda, run home, run home Booda. Go, Go!”

Without hesitation, he ran through the middle of the field toward third base. Then he jumped the fence and started running in the direction of his home. “No, Booda, no!” we yelled as he was already across the street about to “run home.”

We had stopped him before he ran too far, but we all got a good laugh out of the misunderstanding. We should have let him run home, even though it was only about a two-minute run to my aunt Brenda's apartment.

At Aunt Brenda's, children would be playing in the bedrooms while the adults were in the living room playing spades, smoking weed and drinking. Loud music and foul language would echo throughout the house. I would try to hang out with the grown-ups, before getting kicked out and told play with the children. But I preferred going to Aunt Brenda's over staying at grandma's house any day.

The bowling alley was another place I enjoyed going with my mom. She was a skilled bowler in her prime, but after the fire her hands were slightly damaged by burns, leaving her to settle for competing in local leagues instead of professionally. Personally, I thought she was a pro; she had her own bowling bag, her own ball, her own shoes, a powdered beanbag, and even a wrist guard. She would go to the bowling alley at least twice a week.

I often begged her, “Please Ma, please let me come with you.”

“Come on then,” she gave in, “But you'd better stay out of goddamn trouble. You hear me?”

I promised then turned and stuck my tongue out to my other siblings, who were jealous because I got to go out and they had to stay at home. My mother allowed me to accompany her because she knew I would stay out of her way and out of her sight; I spent most of my time away from the bowling lanes in the arcade room.

That room was like Heaven. When I was not playing a game, I was watching other people play. I became their biggest fan, rooting for them hoping they would throw me a quarter or two. I knew better than to ask my mother for change, especially while she was bowling. That would hurt my chances of being allowed the next time I asked to tag along. Instead, I stayed in the arcade room trying to manipulate people.

“Awe man, you were so close. I never seen anyone play as good as you,” I lied to get the person to like me, and hopefully hand me some spare change.

After I had used my 50 cents or dollar and no one was playing a game, I would walk up and down the bowling alley looking for loose change. Sometimes there were dimes and quarters underneath the tables or in tight corners, and sometimes I found change in the machines by pressing the reject button. I discovered numerous ways to keep myself occupied while my mother bowled, without interrupting her. When she was done, we would get a ride home from one of my her “friends.” This was another reason for wanting to go along; because we frequently stopped at Wendy's for one of my favorites, a delicious chocolate frosty.

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