No One Survives the Smoke

On crime passed down from generation to generation

Image: Dominic Cox / EyeEm

Coney Island, Brooklyn. 2017.

I pull onto Daddy’s block. The stocky frame houses stack next to one another like planks on the Boardwalk. It’s late fall so there is ample street parking, unlike the summer months when cars crush into each other like Colt 45 cans. A distant car horn buzzes angrily on the ave. Roxy barks from behind the ground level window that overlooks the street. Daddy stands in his front yard behind the tall guard gate, eyeing me as I line my car up against the stretch of curb in front of his house.

He pulls one last drag before flicking his stogie to the cement, heading in my direction.

Flatbush. 1987.

Mornings are the same in our busy one bathroom apartment. I lean onto the sink. My left palm anchors against its cool as I tiptoe, hoisting high enough to see my six-year-old reflection in the mirror. Gripping a small pink toothbrush, I studiously scrub the bubblegum-tasting paste side-to-side, across my top front teeth and the gap that’s smacked between them. Scccrppp scccrppp scccrppp.

Mama sits on the toilet, chin pressed into palms and wearing her mangy tee — the one with the stretched neckline and peeling bumblebee yellow lettering that reads, Bedford Lanes Couples League. Mama’s hair is a wild bed of compressed coils that spring like flowers newly freed from the heel of a hiker’s boot. She sings a jazzy tune just loud enough to discern. Them that’s got shall get, them that’s not shall lose…

Behind the shower’s thick glass door, Daddy lathers himself in Old Spice soap, sending vanilla and cinnamon scents misting about. The running water is the Boooom-pap-Boom-pap. Boooom-pap-pap-Boom-pap beneath his ritualistic chant.

Daddy says our names like Saturday reruns of What’s Happening and Good Times — on repeat. “Niki” he says with his normal talking voice. “Paaam” he sings with just a tad more baritone as Mama’s name swings through his mouth like bebop for just an extra beat. Then he spits “Niki” again. Boom-pap. The rhythm is always the same every shower he takes. No matter. Scccrppp scccrppp scccrppp. We keep to our morning routine. For the Bible says, but it still is news. As if Niki-Paaam-Niki-Paaam-Niki-Paaam is the bass to our beat.

Coney Island. 2017.

“Hey, Baby Girl,” Daddy breathes before stretching his lean arms around me and planting a wet kiss on my cheek. His mouth sets solemnly. A far cry from his usual wide smile.

It’s been at least a year since the last time I was here. That time, like most, the house was packed with family delighting over Daddy’s famous barbeque. A spades game erupted into havoc in the backyard. The earthy smell of his current wife’s curry chicken danced with the sea in the air. This time, the scent of Daddy’s Newport hovers as familiar as Old Spice all those decades ago. My fingers latch onto his back. I bury my face into his chest. I inhale him. And I bawl.

I’ve just been named the defendant in a ten-count indictment. And I’m terrified.

I bury my face into his chest. I inhale him. And I bawl.

Flatbush. 1988.

In our living room is our fourth family member — a silver Pioneer. When Daddy comes home from work, he hits the power button and her face explodes into stoplight red squares, numbers lit in aqua blue, and bars that stretch neon green. Sometimes, Run DMC spits from her speakers. Daddy and I rhyme, “Mary, Mary! Why ya buggin? Mary, Mary! I need a huggin!” Other times, with a voice barely better than a wounded hound, Daddy closes his eyes, bends his knees and shifts his feet while singing with me and Cameo, “Word Up! Everybody says, when you hear the call you’ve got to get it underway!”

On weekends, when Daddy’s working overtime, Mama controls the silver sliver of a power button and the pitted volume notch. While washing dishes, tidying up our bedrooms and cleaning out the fish tank, Mama lets our Pioneer bump. We sing along with Janet, Stephanie and Patti. Luther is another family favorite. As I snuggle with my life-sized Minnie Mouse on our shell white leather couch, I watch Mama wax the hardwood floors. Together we belt: “Are you gonna be, say you’re gonna be, are you gonna be, say you’re gonna be, well, well, well, we-el-elllll…”

“Precious,” Mama says one day after the housework is done. “Go get your shoes. Let’s go to the movies.”

“Yaaaayyyyyy!” I sing.

I rush to my bedroom and throw on my bleach-white Keds. Mama and I skip over the chalky hopscotch boards and colorfully lidded plastic vials that litter the sidewalk. We veer past the brick apartment buildings and fly block boys, and head to the Kenmore on Church Ave for a matinee show. We lean back into the crush velvet crimson seats and crack up at Prince Akeem and Semmi’s adventures in Coming to America.

On our way home, we stop by clothing shops where Mama places some outfits for me on layaway. We pick up a 2-liter of Pepsi, a big bag of Bonton chips, a dollar’s worth of American cheese, and a stack of deli cut Genoa salami. Mama and I recall our favorite parts of the movie and plan the night’s quick fix meal.

Back inside our building, Mama opens the door to our apartment and Twilight, our tabby cat, slinks across our legs to welcome us home. Full of laughter and bags and plans for the night, we enter our living room. At once, the day’s joy is done.

Our silver Pioneer is gone.

Coney Island. 2017.

I am breaking down, but Daddy holds my elbow and guides me into his home and onto his couch. Roxy settles beside Daddy’s leg. Daddy settles beside me. Besides my wails, the house is eerily quiet. Waiting.

“Nobody’s here, Mommy. Jus me and you,” Daddy encourages. You’re safe to be weak. It’s just us, he means. “Tell me how you doin?”

But I can’t talk. There’s not enough air in this house for the two of us. Not enough tears have poured for the pain to yield. I fold over onto my thighs and Daddy rubs my back.

“It’s alright, Mommy. If there’s anything I know, you awwwwlright,” he consoles.

There’s not enough air in this house for the two of us.

When my hiccups and sobs and shakes subside, Daddy treads over to his kitchen counter and returns with a stack of napkins. He sits to my right and rubs my knee as I wipe the tears that are tiring, but still falling.

Image: Dominic Cox / EyeEm

Flatbush & Downtown Brooklyn. 1989.

This morning, Daddy crept into my bedroom unannounced, positioned himself at the foot of my bed, and let his fingertips dance across the flat of my bare feet. I woke up laughing to Daddy’s relentless tickles, as he gripped my narrow ankle in his wide hand. Finally, when my stomach was sore and Daddy’s cheeky grin stretched from ear-to-ear, he planted a kiss on my forehead.

“Aight, Mommy, see you later,” he said before taking off to work, dressed in his ocean blue shirt and navy pants. His shoes freshly polished ink black. His New York City Department of Corrections badge shining at his breast.

Now, it’s afternoon. Mama and I sit at the Atlantic Avenue exit of the Brooklyn House of Detention. It’s payday. We try to catch Daddy at work to grab hold of his check before it’s too late. We look for his whiskey brown, thickly mustached face as we wait in our Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme.

He evades us. Again.

On our drive back home, we listen to 98.7 Kiss. Anita sings, “You bring me joy. Don’t go too far away…” Tears stream down Mama’s face. A slender Salem Light dangles from between the fingers where her hand clutches the wheel. I stare out the passenger window, imagining Daddy bundled in his onyx leather trench coat, standing beneath a weather-worn awning that reads Check Cashing. I visualize him in a line that winds down a snow-dusted concrete street, chest-to-back with other tar black to pistachio paste brown men and women who anxiously await immediate cash despite losing a quarter of their earnings. I envision him pressing his calloused thumb against the craggy wheel of a lighter, placing it to the smutty lip of a glass pipe and blowing our rent, rock by rock, up in smoke.

He evades us. Again.

I’m in the third grade. Daddy’s crack addiction is worsening.

Daddy routinely steals our furniture, money and Mama’s jewelry to feed his need to get high. “He’s on a mission,” Mama says, raw-throated and head-shaking, that day we came home to find our floor model television gone. His missions became more frequent. Now they last for longer spells. Crack claims him. Us. I see Daddy less. I hear Mama crying more.

I grip the door handle with my right hand. God, please send my Daddy home tonight, I think. I say, “Don’t cry, Mama. It’s gonna be alright.”

Coney Island. 2017.

I crack open like a Dutch Master cigar and let my guts pour. I am no longer the stoic daughter he hasn’t seen cry since I fell off the monkey bars and busted my mouth in Park Slope thirty years before. I am now thirty-six. I confide in Daddy that, even though I am unjailed and here in Brooklyn, even though my lawyer says that the DA will let me turn myself in next month, despite those things, the sound of sirens send stallions galloping through my chest. Each time my doorbell rings at home, paralysis pierces my legs and my palms go clammy. When my phone buzzes a LinkedIn or Facebook notification, I get dizzy with fear that someone else has found out my truth. Worry that my picture is front and center in yet another news article keeps me quarantined inside my bedroom for days at a time. I tell him about the pain that rips through my back and clamps my muscles tightly as panic seizes me each night. I tell him about the fear that grips my torso, leaving my rib cage sore every day.

Daddy sits back. And he listens.

Bushwick. 1989.

We are a pitiful army: a junior enlisted eight-year-old girl wrapped in a lint-fuzzed onesie, sporting a snow white coat; and a Sergeant Major Mama leaning into the crisp air, foam-rollers clasped around her hair, leading her charge. Her narrow eyes fixed ahead, determined. Her hand clenched around my own. Uncle Foot, Daddy’s older brother and a crack-addicted Vietnam vet, flanks her side. It’s well after midnight. Just a short time ago, Mama barged into Daddy’s mother’s house and happened upon Uncle Foot. Against Grandma Mabel’s pleas to “Leave the baby with me, Pam!” Mama demanded that Uncle Foot take us to find Daddy. Now, he marches with Mama and I to the places where he and Daddy get high.

We enter a matchbox-small, brick building.

Rings of steel blue smoke linger in the air. Mama cuts right on through it, dragging me along. Uncle Foot is close on our tails. We walk past women and men. Some look like they’re sleeping, huddled on the floor or against windows. Others zealously puff away on glass pipes they caress in one hand lit by torches they hold in the other. No one stops us or even bats an eye. Are we the spectacle or are they?

We search the two-story house, entering and exiting one room after the other. But Daddy is not here.

Mama and I return to our tenement apartment devoid of base and smoke and fog. I rub Twilight and take off my coat before walking into the room where Daddy used to do push-ups as I laid on his back. In their bedroom, seated at the edge of their bed, Mama stares out through her wrought iron–barred window into the black night. Her breasts and back rattle. She chokes on her own gulps of air.

Daddy is not here.

I hold Mama tight as she wails. Between tears and snot and breaths and shivers, she says, “It’s me and you, Precious. We’re a team. It’s me and you.”

Image: ericsphotography / Getty Images

Coney Island. 2017.

We head into the backyard so Daddy can have a smoke. He smacks a fresh pack into his left palm before peeling it open and pulling out a stogie. He offers me a cigarette. I decline. I quit smoking nine months back.

Daddy is over sixty years old and without a wrinkle. Fine laugh lines etch the nooks beneath his high cheekbones. A few worry lines mark his brow. His salt and pepper hair is cropped low. His shape up is subtle. Daddy lights up and pulls out a bottle of Easy Jesus brandy from the cooler that sits next to his chair. He offers me a swig and I accept. The taste burns bitter against my tongue. It’s not bad, but it’s not the dark liquor I’m used to.

“I ain’t got that Hennessy for you today, Mommy,” he chuckles. I stare at the gaps between his teeth. In them, I find us. I see we.

“Daddy,” I say before taking another swig. “I ain’t built for jail,” I hand the bottle back to him.

He leans back into his green plastic chair, pinching the bottleneck between his fingers, and agrees, “No, Baby Girl, you ain’t.”

Flatbush. 1990.

With Daddy always on a mission, I sleep with Mama. When Mama’s ready for bed, she buries her wallet between the mattress and box-spring, conceals it behind a frozen vegetable box at the back of the freezer, or wedges it between the fish tank and the living room wall so Daddy can’t find it when he sneaks in to steal from us at night. Only after her money is hidden does she climb in so we can cuddle close.

Daddy’s theft of Mama’s things or our household items is now normal. Forgivable acts in our family. He is Daddy, after all. Mama’s husband. The collector of hundreds of vinyl albums. The man who used to break into song and dance no matter where we were. The man who used to put me on his shoulders so I could glimpse Gladys Knight, the Temptations, the O’Jays, and a different famous R&B act perform on a crowded Wingate High School lawn every summer Wednesday. The man who robs from his wife and house, but no one else.

I arrive home from my fourth grade class at PS 139. Twilight greets me at the door and walks me into my bedroom. Now that Daddy’s hardly here and Mama works late hours to compensate for the missed and stolen income, I spend most afternoons at home alone putting on concerts for Twilight, lip syncing to New Edition, K Solo and The Boys who blare from the small boom box that sits perched on my dresser. But today my boombox is gone. So are my cassette tapes.

Daddy has stolen my music. I sink to the floor and cry into the hardwood. My fists pound at its planks. My heart churns and my body trembles at the thought of the deception. When the spasms subside, I call Mama at work.

“Mahhhh!” I cry.

“Precious? Precious, what happened?”

But, I cannot talk. Daddy has taken my tapes, my tongue and my heart with him.

“Precious, calm down. Just breathe. Breathe, Precious. Breathe. Now, tell me what happened.”

“Mahhmeee,” I start, but the words will not break free.

“Just breathe, Precious.”

“Mommy,” I cry, “Dad…”

“What did Daddy do, Precious? It’s okay. You can tell me. What did your father do?”

“Daddy stole my boombox and cassette tapes,” I scream before the convulsions take over again.

“Awwww, Precious. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. Don’t worry, Niki. Don’t you worry.”

But worry about Daddy is all I do.

Days later, Mama and I sit in the living room watching the Cosby show. Claire and Cliff school their children about one life lesson or another. The lock to our apartment’s door click-clink-clanks as Daddy turns his key, drawing me and Mama’s gaze its way. This is the first time that we’ve heard Daddy’s keys unlock our door in at least a week. Daddy, head-hanging, walks in past the threshold with the lean of a man who harbors regrets twice his age. His black Adidas pantsuit, with nothing more, is out of touch with winter’s wrath. His once muscular body is reduced to a frail frame of skin and bones. His shoulders hunch, weighed down in shame.

Mama rises from our butter soft couch and approaches him before he can complete the short trek into our living room.

“John,” she says with a voice steady and seeped with compassion and finality. “Give me your keys.” She outstretches her hand, staking the distance between them.

Daddy doesn’t flinch, protest or take another step towards us.

This is the first time that we’ve heard Daddy’s keys unlock our door in at least a week.

He dips his hand into his pocket and drags them out. He gives Mama his only entry ticket into our world. Choked up, Daddy calls out, “Mommy, come ovah here.” I slow-step toward him, ashamed that I am the reason Mama is putting him out in the cold. I worry about where he will go and who will give him a coat. Daddy lifts me into his arms, pulls me tight to his chest and holds me as he sobs into my braids. “I love you, Mommy. Never forget your Daddy loves you.” But, Daddy I’m scared.

“I hate you!” I say.

Coney Island. 2017.

We sit in silence and stare into the rubble of the backyard next door. The house was abandoned after Sandy. I had hoped that Daddy would say something comforting like, “God will only give you what you can bear” or “You’re tough, girl! Ain’t nothing you ain’t built for.” But Daddy’s love ain’t lies or wishful thinking. Daddy’s love is truth.

“Mommy, we all fuck up. We all fall short. I walked in on Mama praying one day. She ain’t hear me. But, I heard her. I heard my mother praying for God to release the taste of that drug from my mouth.”

Daddy chokes a deep inhale from the Newport that dangles between his dark lips.

“Mama died in my arms. Died in my arms when I was getting high. She died looking into the eyes of her crackhead son.” He pauses to exhale. “Baby girl, life ain’t easy. Trust me, I’ve been there.” Inhale. “Now that it’s given you a hard blow, it’s up to you to deal.” Exhale. “Are you gonna roll with it and get up? Or are you gonna crumble and fall?” He ashes the tip of his cigarette onto the cement of his backyard. “If I could get back up Mommy, you can. But getting back up is up to you.”

On summer Saturdays in late 1980s Brooklyn, Mama would send me outside to, “Go wait for your father, Niki!” In front of our brick building, dusty kids whizzed by, back and forth, up the sidewalk and down again. Scccrppp scccrppp scccrppp. After corner-to-corner scanning the block for Daddy’s smooth shoulder bop and shrunken frame, I’d tumble into their freeze tag game like dice tossed from palm to pavement in a cee-lo match. Inevitably, dark would descend, Daddy wouldn’t show up, and some kid would call out, “Step on the crack, break ya mama’s back!” I’d then caper over the ruptures in the concrete. Those cracks sank shallow but sprawled nefariously for stretches short and long — admonitions of hard times to come. Them that’s got shall get, them that’s not shall lose. While under pressure to not be caught, to not be tagged, to not be named “It.” I quickly crossed each fissure, Slinky spilling from one side of the smooth pavement to the other. Carrying crack’s ominous warnings with me well into adulthood.

But, somehow, despite the knowing, I made a misstep.

And the cracks swallowed me whole.

Boooom-pap-Boom-pap. BOOOOM.

When I arrived at Daddy’s house to tell him that the Cleveland County District Attorney’s office named me as the defendant in a ten-count fraud, forgery and attempted-theft indictment, Daddy was a former corrections officer and thieving crack addict. I was an attorney who made a career of prosecuting police misconduct and domestic violence.

I was also a criminal.

Like my last name and gap-toothed smile, crime passed down from generation to generation. Daddy smoked crack, tore our family apart and stole the one thing that helped me cope when he was gone — my music. I tried to steal money in order to relocate from Brooklyn to Cleveland to perform a job that I was hired to do — lead an organization tasked with overseeing the Cleveland police department in the wake of Tamir Rice’s murder. While many disappeared, dusting me for dead and done, Daddy rubbed my back. Daddy opened up to me about existing on both sides of the law. And Daddy reminded me that despite all that I burned down, I could rebuild again. I could find my way through the smoke and ash to the other side of the crack.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most…

Nicole Shawan Junior

Written by

Nicole Shawan Junior is a multi-genre counter-storyteller & the founder of Roots. Wounds. Words. Writing Workshop for Womynx. Follow @NicoleShawanJunior

Gay Mag

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

Nicole Shawan Junior

Written by

Nicole Shawan Junior is a multi-genre counter-storyteller & the founder of Roots. Wounds. Words. Writing Workshop for Womynx. Follow @NicoleShawanJunior

Gay Mag

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

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