A loud rattling noise woke me up. I pulled my seat upright to see what was going on. We were on some back-country dirt road, and rocks were kicking up against the floorboard. There was nothing but trees on either side, so thick I couldn’t see ten yards in any direction. Not even up.
My moms looked like she was a hundred miles away, thinking about things that parents think about.
“Why in the world would anyone want to live out here?” I asked. “This is crazy.”
She told me I’d met my godfather before, at a reunion or something when I first got adopted, but I don’t remember meeting anybody who lived in Missouri. I feel like I woulda remembered that. And I definitely didn’t know much about him. I didn’t even know what a godfather was until my moms told me.
“He probably thinks we’re crazy for living in the city,” she said.
We hadn’t been talking much since she told me I had to come with her to visit him. For one, I was still pissed she had sent me off to Big D’s to kick off the summer. All my friends were playing ball and hitting up 38th Street, and I was on lockdown, all cause I told the principal I had no spiritual desire. But more than anything, I was pissed I was missing the first week of summer basketball.
“Well, I hope he has a basketball hoop.”
“I’m sure he does, Sam. But if he doesn’t, I don’t want to hear you complaining, okay?”
It was always something. Pretty much anything I said or did was wrong, as far as she was concerned.
“I’m not complaining. Geez, I’m just asking.”
She didn’t say anything. Just sat there with her eyes fixed on the winding orange road, thinking about whatever she was thinking about, tapping her fingers on the steering wheel.
“What happened to the music?” I asked.
“I thought I’d enjoy some quiet time.”
“Do you care if I turn it back on?”
“Sam, I really don’t want to listen to garbage right now.”
She was pretty strict about what music she let us listen to. It was pretty much Christian or country. We used to be able to listen to U2, but after one of their albums, I forget which one, she changed her mind and said their music wasn’t Christian anymore. I can’t really get mad at her for calling my music garbage. She found a 2 Live Crew tape in my closet at the start of summer, and even I have to admit, they’re pretty dirty. Like any Christian mom, she about flipped out. And ever since, she thinks that’s all I listen to.
I just wanted to kill the silence.
“I won’t turn on rap or anything. What about country? I’m sure they got some good country out here.”
“Sam, I’d really prefer to just keep it down right now, okay?”
“Geez. Why are you in such a bad mood?”
She gave me the look. The one where, normally, she’d be saying, get in my bedroom for some swats. “I’m not in a bad mood, Sam.”
“I’m just sayin, how much longer?”
“I really hope you can be respectful, Sam. He said it’s about eight miles up the dirt road, so we should be there pretty soon.”
I thought about pulling out my Walkman, but I didn’t want to waste the batteries. I only brought a pack of four, and if they didn’t have a basketball hoop, I was gonna need a whole lot more. I don’t remember meeting my godfather at the reunion, but I do remember it was a bunch of blue hairs, and there’s nothing more boring than sitting around watching old people dip veggies in ranch and listening to them talk about the medications they’re on. I reclined my seat to try and catch a little more of the sleep I lost on the red-eye into St. Louis.
About half an hour later, my moms nudged my shoulder and woke me up. I was hoping maybe we had passed through the country and were back in the city, but we were just farther away from anything and anyone.
Right outside our window was a wooden sign that read “Office” in big yellow letters.
“An office? What’s he need an office for?”
“I have no idea, Sam. Maybe for his work.”
“What’s he do?”
“I don’t know, honey. Last I remember he was a farmer of something or other.”
“Geez, this place is huge. Does he have a bunch of kids or what?”
“He does, but I believe they’re all grown up. Remember, honey—”
“I know, Moms. Be on my best behavior. Geez. I know.”
I hopped out of the car for a stretch and a better look around. Something was burning somewhere, but I couldn’t spot the source of the smell. A big red building stood at the opposite end of the concrete road we were parked on, a baby blue tractor parked under its tin roof. Other than that, the three other buildings were stained clapboard, just like the office. It was a quiet little compound.
A small garden enclosed with timbers sat off to the right of our car. Beyond the tall husks of corn, I spotted a big grey backboard and a red rim.
“Yes! He has a hoop.”
My moms was still sitting in the car, her hands on the wheel.
“Moms, you okay?”
“Are you crying?”
She got out of the car and wiped a tear from under her glasses, then straightened her dress. “Oh, you know me. I cry at everything.”
I didn’t really know her to cry at all, actually. I’d seen her angry, but sad? Never. Not that she never got sad, I’d just never seen it before. Even when her husband just up and split, right after they adopted me, I never saw her cry. Just like I’d never seen her wear a dress.
“Should I grab our luggage?” I asked.
“Why don’t we go say hi first?”
She came over and put her arm around me, rubbing circles on my lower back. “I love you, Sam, okay? I just want you to know that.”
There was something familiar in the way she said it, almost like a goodbye or something, and I got this sense that things weren’t what they seemed.
As we walked around the car toward the stone pathway leading to the front office, I noticed two boys out on a porch along the side of the building. They were standing on a deck locked in by a high razor-wire fence, shucking corn and watching us. Why the razor wire?
The bigger boy, wearing a pair of overalls, stuck his hand in the air and waved.
In the back of my mouth, I could taste the lie. She was making good on her promise to send me away, and that’s why, out of six kids, I was the only one she brought. My knees buckled and my feet stopped moving.
“I’m not here to see my godfather, am I?”
She tried to explain something to me with her eyes, then she shook her head. “Honey, this is your new school.”
Christians always lie like that, like God gives them permission to say anything they want to further the cause. Like they’re Moses or something.
I threw her hand off my back. “You’re really doing this?”
“Honey, I love you—”
“Don’t lie to me. That’s bullshit.”
“Honey, I understand why you’re upset, but I don’t know what else to do. I love you too much to let you keep going down the road you’re on.”
“What about basketball?”
“What about it? They have basketball here.”
“Yeah, but I’m not gonna make it anywhere playing there.” I pointed to the hoop.
“Honey, it’s only a year. You’ll have plenty of chances to play when you get back home. You’re only a freshman.”
The porch door swung open, and a little old man with long sideburns stepped out and hopped across the porch, his blue boots clicking against the wooden floorboards. A boy, a good head taller than him with bright orange hair, followed him down the steps toward us.
“Ye’all found us,” the old man said.
“Yep. And on time, too.”
He shook my moms’ hand, then looked at me. “Sam, my name is Charles Ward. But everyone here calls me Papa.”
He put out his hand, but I didn’t shake it. He wasn’t intimidated in the slightest, but he could tell I was upset, and he didn’t push it.
“I reckon you understand this where you’ll be going to school this year?”
“How bout we go on inside and get settled in a bit?”
I wasn’t sure what to do, but I felt like if I took one step closer, I’d never be able to take it back. I just stood there, looking around the property, swallowing fire in the back of my throat.
The old man put his hand on my arm. “This here is Graham,” he said. “You and him gonna walk right through that door and sit down and get acquainted while your mama and I discuss a few things.”
I didn’t shake Graham’s hand either.
“We can do this the easy way, or the hard way,” the old man said, squeezing a little tighter on my arm and raising his bushy white eyebrows.
I yanked my arm from his grasp, and Graham lunged forward, all clenched up.
“Sam. I’ma give you one more chance. It’s up to you. Easy way, or hard way? We ain’t going through it a third time.”
I wanted to take the hard way, but Graham looked like a pit bull, just waiting for the command, and I didn’t have the guts.
“You don’t need to put your hands on me. I can walk.”
Graham took the lead, and I followed him up the steps and through the front door, angry thoughts I’d never had before bouncing around in my head.
When we got inside, my moms wrapped her arms around me, and I knew it was the last hug I would be getting for a long time. I just stood there, my arms by my sides, unforgivably betrayed.
The old man opened the door behind me. “Ye’all gonna be in here,” he said. “Graham, you just holler if you need any help.”
We walked into a small room with two chairs. Graham took the seat next to the end table and desk phone, and I sat down across from him. I was shaking, I was so nervous. I didn’t really feel like talking, but I needed answers.
“So, what’s the name of this place?”
“Mount Zion Baptist Boarding Academy.”
“Does it suck here?”
“It is what you make it.”
“Do I have to dress like that?” I pointed to his chocolate brown bell-bottom dress jeans and penniless penny-loafers.
“When you go to school you do. But when we go out to work, you don’t have to. You can wear jeans and a T-shirt.”
“Sounds like it fucking sucks.”
“You can’t say that here.”
“Sorry. Sounds like it fucking blows.”
He cautioned me with a stare.
“I don’t have freedom of speech?”
“Not here, you don’t.”
Graham continued to give me all the rules. No cussing. No saying words like “crap” or “fart.” It was “junk” or “poxe.” Just like my moms. No talking about the past, no singing worldly songs, and no talking to anybody on orientation, like me, which, at the time, was only one other kid Graham called T-Dogg. And they didn’t really play much sports, cause they spent most of their time working, and when they did get free time, most of the guys liked to lift weights or hack.
As he was talking, some girl in a cream dress with big flowers all over it came barreling through the door opposite the one we entered. When she saw us sitting there, she stopped dead in her tracks and backed out the way she came, her eyes glued to the floor.
“What’s her problem?” I asked.
“That’s another thing. No talking to the girls.”
“I’m not. No staring either. You get busted if you get caught staring.”
“Like sentences, maybe lose your sweets on Friday night. If you keep doing it, swats.”
I wanted to say, “That’s fucking stupid,” but I caught myself, and I just shook my head.
The little old man came barging back in. “Let’s wrap it up, boys. Sam, your mom would like to say goodbye before ye’all head down to the dorm.”
I hopped up and practically ran through the door, ready to change her mind. She was standing at the door at the other end of the hall and started walking toward me, her shoulders folded in and her arms reached out for another hug.
“Moms, don’t do this. Please, I’ll be good. I promise.”
“Sam, let’s not make this more difficult for your mama than this already is,” the old man said.
“I love you, honey, and I believe this is where God wants you. And the best place you can be, no matter what, is in the center of God’s will.”
She took another step toward me, but I backed away. “Then just leave. Goodbye. That’s what you want. I don’t need another hug.”
I did want another hug, but I really wanted to change her mind, make her think a little more about what she was doing. I thought if I gave her the cold shoulder, she’d soften up and listen.
The old man wasn’t having any of it, though. He’d done this a million times. He positioned himself between my moms and me. “Graham, let’s go ahead and take Sam down to the dorm while Miss Schneider and I finish up.”
“Yes, sir. Do we need to grab his luggage or anything?”
“Nope. Brother Raymond’s down there with it, waiting for ye’all.”
I heard my moms sniffling as I walked back out the front door, but I didn’t look back.