Brian Hopkins was a bully.
The boy, who had become the man, wriggled on the stretcher and lay still. Dr. Manuel battled to stabilise his vitals, barking inaudible orders to the attending nurses.
“Dr. Maro Peter’s, your presence is needed in the H theatre ASAP!” A sweet female voice boomed my name through the Public Address systems that littered the walls of the sprawling medical complex.
Blood seeped from a crack on his skull, matting the dreaded copper-coloured hair I remembered only too well. His daunting features were unmistakable. And as I stared at his unconscious form through the double glass doors of the OR, I could not help but remember my mother’s words: great kings pick their battles. She had spoken these words that sunny afternoon in Brooklyn. And not until this moment did I understand their gravity. Not until I stood before the origin of my throes, the sadistic persona that had prompted that long speech in our modest suburban home that day.
It all began when Mother got a job at The Staplex Company, a manufacturing company located in Brooklyn, as a sales representative. It was a huge lift from her ten dollar-a-week job as a cleaner at MacDonald’s in downtown Manhattan where we lived. She was in high spirits that evening. I remember her telling me just how great our new home would be.
“Not like this dump with roaches and rats.” She said. “I’ll make sure you get a room for yourself, and we won’t have to share one wardrobe anymore. Plus we would have friendly neighbours, not like the Grumpsky’s and old, boring Dr. Topah.” she had said, the corners of her eyes crinkling, her lips curved upward like a crescent moon. “You will go to a better school, make new friends, rich friends from whom you’ll learn how to become a perfect gentleman.”
“But Mama I don’t want a new school. I love my school and I love my friends.” I protested feebly.
She patted my hair and kissed my brow. “I know. But Maro, you must understand that nothing in life is constant. The only constant thing is change. Never get too comfortable with any particular situation. If we have to leave, then we have to leave, regardless of emotional attachments we may have formed. Besides, Brooklyn aint so far away, we could always come back sometime to visit old friends.”
She pushed me to a chair and sat beside me. I could not help noticing that her usually immaculate hair was rough and unkempt. There was a tired look in her eyes, and she bit down on her lower lip ever so often. “You will be fine, I promise.” She pulled at my cheeks till I made the comic expression she sought. We both laughed. And at that moment I was willing to do anything to keep that smile on her battered face.
“What about Granny?” I asked, worried for poor old granny. Granny Josephine loved the neighbourhood, and most of all, I had noticed the long hours she spent with Dr. Topah.
“Granny is going back to Nigeria the day after tomorrow . . . c’mon, cheer up.” Mother added as she saw my altered disposition. “She has to attend to some urgent family matter.”
“But I will miss grandma.”
“I know you will and she will, you. She’ll come join us in Brooklyn when we are settled.”
“But where is she?” I asked, suddenly realising I hadn’t seen Granny all day.
My mother looked at me with big round eyes, surprised that I wouldn’t know where dear old granny would be.
“Oh . . . Dr. Topah’s bunk.”
I caught on quickly, and we both shared a hearty laughter at what had long become a source of amusement for us both; we shared a strange relationship, Mother and I.
Two nights before the move that was to change my life forever, the sharp voices of my parents woke me up from a dreamless sleep. I say parents because Mother had always made me regard her man-friend(s) as such. I never knew who my real father was; Mother would never say. The father figures in my life were as constant as the four seasons; they changed according to my mother’s dire predilection at the time.
Steve was the worst of the lot. He was big, ugly and very white. His mane of deep brown hair was always in dirty clumps. His freckled face had the coldest eyes I had ever seen; they were cobalt blue and could see into ones soul, maybe because they always seemed to have this supernatural glow around them. His nose was broken. I was sure it was because of the way it hung limply to one side of his face when he grimaced—which was very often. What scared me most about him was the thick black scar that ran down the corner of his nose, cutting through his lips and stopping inches away from his stubbly chin. Whenever I scurried past him, I felt that demoralizing fear the Lilliputians must have felt for Lemuel Gulliver in Jonathan Swifts, Gulliver’s Travels.
Steve was everything a companion should never be.
My heart hammered against my chest as I imagined the inevitable. Quickly, I jumped out of bed and tiptoed into the dark corridor that led to their room. I glued my ears to the ant infested wood that separated them from the hall I shared with Granny and the few appurtenances we owned. That is, what was left of our belongings after Steve’s prodigal fingers had carted away everything that was of any value.
“You are not going anywhere!” I heard my father thunder.
“Please calm down, Steve. It’s for our own good.”
“Do not tell me to calm down. I need to know the truth.”
“Who did you open your legs for to get that job?”
“Steve, how could you—”
The explosive sound that followed my mother’s pause ricocheted around the small house like a detonating grenade. Her scream pierced my ears and I felt my world darken with rage. The next two to three minutes was a cacophony of sounds; slaps and blows that landed with practiced ease on flesh and bone. I slid to the floor and shared Mother’s pain the only way I could—I let the tears flow. Granny, who could have stepped in at this moment had returned to Africa. I was alone with a monster.
Mother screamed, but not for long. I heard her muffled moans as I imagined his beefy hands stuffing bits of cloth into Mothers mouth to stifle her yell.
The door came crashing, its hinges narrowly missing my head. My mother was flung out of the room with a viciousness that hurt the eyes to see. Like a rag doll, she crumpled on the ground a few feet from me. I ran to her and cradled her head in my arms.
“Bitch!” Steve howled. He marched out of the room, flipped the light switch on the corridor and stood there fuming, contemplating whether to bash her head in and be done with her or to stump off into the night like was his way. I felt his venom in the air like a thick cloud. I bowed my head, avoiding his gaze, for I knew that if looks could kill, his would have slain me a long time ago. Besides there was no need giving him the slightest opportunity to trample on my ribs again. I was still sore from the last beating.
Mother whimpered in my arms, cowering at the site of his boots only inches from her head. Steve turned on his heels and disappeared into the night, banging the front door with such force, it rattled the structure.
With my shirt, I cleaned Mother’s wounds. She gasped in pain as I dabbed at her broken lips. Strangely though, that night was the last time we ever saw or heard from Steve.
We settled quickly into our new home. Brooklyn was everything Mother promised it would be. Or maybe it looked that way because we now had a better view of everything. Fifth Avenue held some of the grandest Victorian structures I had ever seen plus it had a vista to die for. Oaks and birches lined the streets which were paved with flagstones, all the way to Mcdonald Avenue, trailing the windy path to Surf Avenue.
We had fresh hopes, fresh dreams and to top all of that, Mother gave her word that it was going to be just the both of us for a long time to come. I reacted to this piece of news by trying to soak up the void she erringly craved to fill in the arms of unworthy men, by doling out little childlike gestures that never failed to draw out her sunshine. But unfortunately as it turned out, that should have been the least of my worries.
I began school in earnest. Westone Memorial was big and beautiful, with neat, vast green lawns, Elizabethan-style classrooms whose brick walls towered with pride even I could feel. The cobbled pathways were bordered on either side by a hedge of assorted flowers and shrubs whose heady scents permeated the autumn air. But unlike my modest school in Manhattan, Westone was dominated by Whites. I was probably one out of three or four blacks admitted into the school for one exalted reason or the other. Mine was The Staplex Company.
Trouble came cloaked in a five foot six, chubby, copper-coloured hair, and grey-eyed bully. Brian Hopkins greeted me with disapproving eyes that morning as I stepped into class. I saw him whisper excitedly into the ears of an obese boy seating beside him. They both giggled and whispered some more. That day at school was quite uneventful, but not the next and the many others that followed.
Brian was upon me with his gang of shmucks as soon as classes ended on my second day at school. They cornered me in a small alley where I had wandered into, in a bid to familiarise myself with the schools layout; I was so excited about my new environment, impatience and curiosity didn’t allow me wait till the orientation day.
“And what could your name possibly be?” Brian grinned, his eyes dancing in their tiny sockets as he threw his legs forward in that jaunty stride I soon learnt was his alone. His sandy hair waved around his ears and neck as he spoke. His lips were spread wide in a gratuitous smile. He stopped about two feet from me, halting his army of zombies.
I was about to reply when he cut me short.
“Oh I know . . . Nigger,” he sniggered derisively.
“That’s being merciful,” said the obese boy whose name I later learnt was Perry Donahue. “This dude is a mulatto, can’t you see?”
And they all burst out laughing. I felt naked but somehow, I managed to find their laughter quite amusing. But being called a mulatto was another ball game. My fingers closed into a half circle till my knuckles were pointing downward. I disliked fatty immediately. With little effort, I reined in my emotions and made to walk away. One of Brian’s goons, a thin lanky fellow with blemishes all over his skin, pulled me back by grabbing my shirt.
“Brian is talking to you,” he squealed.
I almost wanted to laugh out loud. I was smallish for a twelve-year old, but I had no doubts that this flawed kid with the girly voice could never have dared what he did where we alone. And that hurt. I bit down my lip to stem the storm.
“And to think he’s feeling so cool with himself,” the fourth kid spoke. He was the smallest of the four and hid behind his comrades, fearing for the safety of his glasses should a fight ensue—I was later to know that James Heatherway was a blind mice without his precious goggles.
Brian took a step forward and held me up by the collar. He shook my little frame till I was breathless and panting.
“We know all about you, nigger, and we don’t like you. We do not appreciate learning in the same environment with monkeys. You should be in a zoo.” A couple of jagged consonants tumbled from his mouth. His friends laughed too, holding their bellies to lessen the effects of the joke. “You are not even completely black, neither are you white . . . you are just . . . coloured. I’m guessing your momma must have had fun with a thousand Negroes and Apes to have birthed you.” Then with a serious face, he added, “Tell your whore of a mother to put you in a school where you’ll meet with your kind. You are filth, it’s no wonder even your father rejected you.” He spat.
When the punch escaped my thighs and sailed into the air, connecting with his face, I had no idea. The next thing I knew was the rain of blows that pummelled me to the cold floor.
How did he know so much? I wondered as I lay there, receiving the blows, my hands held protectively over my head. They cursed me in many more words than I care to remember. Then the threats followed; a barrage of what was to come if I kept going on like I didn’t know my place—the gutters or was it the zoo?
The gang must have heard approaching feet for they suddenly dispersed, leaving me in a bloodied mess. My dress was torn in several places, my cheeks and lips were scratched and bleeding. But as I struggled to my feet, fighting back the tears that threatened to fall, it wasn’t the blinding pain in my limbs that hurt. No. It was the ache that gnaws, feeding off the hidden truth that had just been hurled at you by some twisted joke of fate. It was the helplessness that came with knowing you are but a weakling who cannot even defend your mother’s honour and protect her dignity. It was the suffering that came from knowing you were different for no fault of yours, and there was nothing you could do about it.
I was determined to fight back.