One

 

 

U.S. Honors Men Who Died for Country

L.A. Times – Monday, May 31, 1965

 

 

& love is an evil word.
Turn it backwards/see, see what I mean?
An evol word. & besides
who understands it?
I certainly wouldn’t like to go out on that kind of limb.

~Amiri Baraka, “In Memory of Radio”

 

 

The first time I fell in love, I was in the sixth grade.

We lived in Watts, back then, a close-knit community of blue- and white-collar workers living side by side. “Good hardworking Negroes,” as Daddy liked to say. Momma liked to say, “Those same ‘hardworking Negroes’ show up to Sunday service leaning sideways, smelling of sin,” as if she’d never leaned with sin herself. Momma wanted me to believe she’s always been a good God-fearing Christian, as if this knowledge would shame me into being the same. She wasn’t fooling anyone. I knew she was a hellion in her days, B.Z. (“Before Zayla,” that’s me) because I saw pictures of her half naked, face full of make-up, hanging off different guys until those guys became one guy – my daddy, Frank Sylvester McKinney.

Daddy used to be a famous singer on the Chitlin’ Circuit and was spitting distance from being the next Otis Redding, as he loved to say. Then, one night, he stepped into the narrow smoke-filled hallway of The Sanctuary, a blues club on 103rd Street, and collided into Zora Phillips. How they ever got beyond that first night was a mystery to me because Daddy was sunshine compared to Momma’s thunderstorms. Yet, one year later, she traded in her BS degree from Loyola Marymount for an MRS degree. Nine months after that, baby makes three, as the saying goes. Daddy bought the brown stucco Craftsman in the middle of the block on Pace Avenue in “The Circle.” Our close-knit neighborhood, where Daddy grew up, is just off Central Avenue and 104th Street.

For love, Daddy took a job at KGFJ, the most popular radio station in L.A., where he became one of the most popular deejays. When the owner of The Sanctuary retired, Daddy bought the nightclub to keep the nightlife going in Watts. Momma’s claim to fame was loving Daddy and making my life miserable – and she was award-winning. I couldn’t imagine giving up everything for love, although I didn’t fully understand it. To me, love was winning a round of marbles and walking away with someone’s favorite Shooter. So, when Kimberly Denise Mitchell moved into the house across the street the idea of love began to make more and more sense.

For three days, I watched, safely hidden behind the drapes, as she played jacks and hopscotch alone. My lack of confidence toward pretty girls prevented me from going over to introduce myself. She had this mass of auburn curls that reflected blonde highlights when the sun hit it just so, and deep dimples that could be seen from miles away. She was tall, but not so tall kids would call her “Gigantor.” And she had just enough flesh on her bones so kids wouldn’t call her “Bean Pole.” Convinced I’d never get the courage to go over and meet her, I sent my best friend, Malik, instead. I had to bribe him with my fireball red Shooter to get him to agree.

I peeked through the curtains while they talked, wondering what he was telling her because she kept looking over at our house. After about ten minutes, he burst through our front door and flopped down on the sofa.

 “Her name is Kimberly Denise Mitchell. Call her ‘Dee-Dee’ though ‘cause she beat up the last person that called her Kimberly. Her and her mom…Sharon…can you believe she calls her mom by her first name? Anyway, they used to live in a fancy house in Hollywood with her mom’s boyfriend, until he kicked them out. She don’t know or care where her father is. She don’t have no brothers and sisters. And, she wants to know how long you’re gonna watch her out the window before you go introduce yourself.”

“What did you say to her?” I asked.

So much for going unnoticed. How did she see me watching her? I wondered. Then punched Malik in his arm for being such a terrible spy.

“Owww. Nothin’. She told me you had two days and then she was comin’ over here.”

Just like Malik to not be helpful when I needed him.

“Thanks,” I said, not meaning it.

Momma watched Ms. Mitchell come and go, too. Not from behind the curtains, either. Sometimes she stood on the porch watching, letting everyone see nosy in action. This is how Momma saw a white man drop Ms. Mitchell off at the corner instead of in front of her house. She almost broke her neck getting to the phone to call Aunt Evelyn (she wasn’t my real aunt, she was Malik’s mother and Momma’s best friend, their lifelong friendship established around the coloring table in first grade). Momma was convinced Ms. Mitchell was a lady of the night. I thought that meant she worked the graveyard shift like the guys at the Long Beach docks. I found out later what it really meant.

“If she is trickin’ at least she got her a rich white man. She could do a lot worse,” Aunt Evelyn said.

Later that same day, Aunt Evelyn bumped into Ms. Mitchell and Dee-Dee while shopping at Giant Market on 103rd Street and she had a different opinion. Aunt Evelyn found Sharon fascinating, even called her “glamorous” and “shiny” with great big Diana Ross eyes. Dee-Dee, on the other hand, had the nerve to call Aunt Evelyn by her first name and quickly found herself on Aunt Evelyn’s shit list. Children called close friends of the family “aunt” or “uncle,” insert first name. Otherwise, they were “mister” or “missus,” insert last name. Under no circumstances could we call an adult by their first name. No exceptions. Ever. Knowing Aunt Evelyn the way I did, I know she gave Dee-Dee a good dressing down because that’s what adults did when we stepped out of line.

Obviously, it wasn’t good enough because two days later, Dee-Dee showed up at our front door clad in a pink polka dot swimsuit, sporting fuchsia sunshades that took up most of her face, and did the same thing to Momma. 

“Good morning!” she said in a sing-songy way when Momma opened the door. “My name is Kimberly Denise Mitchell, but you can call me Dee-Dee. We just moved in across the street, but you probably already know that, huh? You’re Zora, right? And your daughter is Zayla?”

“Excuse me? To you, I’m Mrs. McKinney,” Momma said. “How may I help you, young lady?”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. McKinney. I told Sharon you probably wouldn’t like it if I called you by your first name, most adults don’t. I know Malik’s mom sure didn’t. Sharon, I mean, my mother, makes me call her and all her friends by their first name. She says it makes her feel younger. Umm…I was wondering…if it’s okay with you… can Zayla come out and play.”

I waited for Momma to send her away.

“Zayla,” Momma called, as if I wasn’t sitting ten feet behind her on the sofa. “Put that book down and come out here and meet Kimberly.”

“Dee-Dee,” Dee-Dee corrected.

“Mmmm hmmm,” Momma said, and walked off.

I threw my copy of Charlie and The Chocolate Factory on my bed and went to the door.

“Hi,” I said, stepping onto the porch and closing the door behind me.

“Hi,” she said and bounced to her feet. “Come on.” 

She grabbed my hand and pulled me across the street, talking non-stop as if we were old friends reacquainted.

“I’m so glad we moved to Watts to be around some other Negroes. White people are too much. Sharon hates being here, but my uncle owns the house and Sharon doesn’t have a job and no one wants to take us in so here we are. Do you want something to drink?”

Before I could answer she told me to “have a seat” and disappeared into her house. She came back a few minutes later with two glasses of lemonade and handed one to me.

“Sharon’s still unpacking, otherwise there would be cookies and sandwiches with the crusts cut off to go with this. Sometimes I think she wants to be June Cleaver. Funny, right? A Negro wanting to be a white woman.”

I half-smiled, the other half of me was stuck on the fact that she called her mother by her first name. I didn’t even have to wonder what Momma would do if I started calling her Zora. It would be the last word I uttered in life, that was for sure.

The front door opened and an old man, looking like a Negro Santa Claus in blue and white stripped overalls stepped onto the porch. He smelled of cigarettes, beer, and day-old funk, as Momma would say.

“Dee, you wanna play in the sprinklers? It’s hot enough.”

“Sure, Eddie. Thanks,” Dee-Dee said.

I waited for her to introduce me. She didn’t and Eddie acted like I wasn’t there anyway. The curse of being the plain girl. People only notice the pretty girl, which is why people saw Momma before they ever noticed me. I was used to it.

Eddie left and came back holding a large box with “Garden” scrawled in black marker on all sides. He sat the box down and went back in the house. Dee-Dee rummaged around inside until she found the sprinkler head and water hose. I helped her pull the hose out. She grabbed one end, humming to herself as she assembled the two parts.

“Help me find the spigot,” she demanded, jumping down all three steps into the grass.

She headed to the side of the house. I looked behind the shrubs out front because our spigot was under the front window. For some reason I had yet to understand, I wanted to be the first to find the spigot. I needed her to like me more than I’d ever wanted any girl to like me before.

“I found it,” she called out.

Deflated, I dusted myself off and returned to my spot on the porch. The sprinkler head sputtered to life, shooting streams of water into the air. Dee-Dee tossed her sunshades in the direction of the porch and ran, screaming, through the water. I picked them up and sat them next to me.

“Aren’t you gonna play in the water with me?” she asked.

“Nah. I don’t wanna get my hair wet.”

“Why not?”

“Because I hate the pressing comb,” I said.

Dee-Dee shrugged. No surprise there. She had “good” hair. The kind of hair that could get wet and be straightened with the least amount of heat. My hair required a straightening comb, otherwise it was a nappy mess and Momma hated messes of any kind.

When Dee-Dee tired of the sprinklers, she came up on the porch, dripping water everywhere, and flopped down next to me. We watched the water go back and forth across the grass awhile. I searched for an excuse to leave, because as fascinated as I was, I was equally uncomfortable. Dee-Dee appeared to be completely comfortable in her skin, as if it was an extravagant evening gown designed by God Himself. She was one hundred percent girl. Polished fingernails and toenails. Matching swimsuit and sunshades. I was rough and tumble. My skin felt like a three-piece polyester suit four sizes too small – designer unknown.

Basically, I didn’t care how I looked coming out of the house. I hated fingernail polish. Matching clothes. And anything frilly or ruffled. My experience with the girls in The Circle proved that “rough and tumble” and “girlie girls” didn’t blend well. It probably didn’t help that I took pleasure in decapitating dolls and breaking up tea sets. Momma said I did it out of meanness because I was jealous. Except I wasn’t jealous. I just hated pretending to be a girlie girl when I had much more fun climbing trees and playing stickball.

All of sudden, as if she could hear inside my head, Dee-Dee turned to me and said, “We can’t be friends if you play with Barbie dolls or have dress-up tea parties.”

I grinned. “I hate Barbie dolls and I hate playing pretend even more.”

We became fast friends. There wasn’t a time you saw me that Dee-Dee wasn’t nearby, and vice versa. We had sleepovers at her house, where Sharon let us turn the living room into our fortress. She’d serve us fancy meats and cheeses that had weird names and we’d drink apple juice out of champagne glasses. Aunt Evelyn was right. Sharon was glamorous with her smooth brown skin and gold stained lips. Her hair was different every day. Momma said she must have a closet full of wigs. I didn’t have the heart to tell her it was only half a closet. At my house, Momma taught Dee-Dee how to make her famous salmon croquettes and we sat in the dining room and ate off Momma’s fancy “show off” china.

The three of us, Malik, Dee-Dee, and I, would go up to Will Rogers Park on 103rd Street and play stickball. Or climb the tree behind First Baptist Street Church and talk about nothing and everything. Every morning we walked to school together playing “red light, green light” and “step on a crack, break your mother’s back.” I liked it when we all hung out together. I also liked having Dee-Dee all to myself. So I started avoiding Malik by lying about why I couldn't play with him. Then, one day he caught Dee-Dee and me coming out of Mr. Moskowitz’s store after I'd told him I wasn't feeling well. He got so mad he called me Dee-Dee’s lapdog and walked off in a huff. We didn't speak for a whole week after that. I spent that time trying to convince myself that he'd only said that because he was angry and hurt.

Sure, I was willing to do whatever it took to maintain my friendship with Dee-Dee. I carried her books to school. Helped her with her homework, sometimes doing it myself if she took too long. I often traded my red Jello for her green, knowing how much I loved red because I considered myself a good friend. But I most certainly wasn’t Dee-Dee’s lap dog. When I explained this to Malik, he laughed and said I acted like I was in love with her, and before long, the other kids were saying it, too. I realized, too late, that I shouldn’t have given her such a big heart-shaped box of candy on Valentine’s day. And that I should have refrained from signing the card, “All my love, Zayla.” Even though I could tell it made her uncomfortable, we managed to remain best friends through it all. At least that’s the lie I told myself knowing deep down inside we’d eventually go our separate ways as if never having met at all.

 

* * * * * *

 

“Zayla? Are you coming?” Dee-Dee asked, pulling me out of my head and back into the classroom.

“Huh?”

“Come on, slowpoke,” she said.

I’d forgotten how it felt to have her rushing me to put my books up and telling me to “come on,” like that. I was thrilled – so happy I could have danced right on down the hall behind her. I didn’t, though. I acted like I had some couth. Momma would have been proud, not that I did it for Momma at all. I did it because I was tired of the kids whispering about me, which is why, I suspect, Dee-Dee started feeding me with a long-handled spoon in the first place. 

I’d overheard most of the whispers. “Why does Zayla dress like a boy?” Or, “Zayla’s so triflin’, why does Dee-Dee even bother being her friend?” My favorite, mostly because it was so ridiculous, was, “Zayla acts like she wants to marry Dee-Dee.” That thought had never even entered my mind.

The boys couldn’t care less how I dressed. As long as I was around to play, that was good enough for them. The girls tormented me the most. I never could understand why they were so insistent on asking questions when they already had the answers. They’d known since kindergarten I hated wearing dresses. They knew I hated getting my hair pressed. And they knew the best way to piss me off was to accuse me of liking a boy. They’d all been just like me, until their first visit to the Montgomery Ward girl’s section to get their training bras. My titties were still deliberating about what they wanted to do. After that, they dropped me and their stickball bats and picked up Barbie dolls and boy crushes. I told myself I didn’t care because I still had Dee-Dee. Or so I thought.

I swallowed the smile I felt crawling up my cheeks and followed Dee-Dee out to the playground. Malik was knuckled down in the marble pit. James and Tony perched on their knees a few feet behind the line on either side of Malik, who looked up as we passed and whistled.  This had never bothered Dee-Dee before, but since she’d been hanging out with Melody and her poisonous snake friends, things they were a-changing.

Dee-Dee spun around and shouted, “Malik Edwards! Stop whistling at me. I am not a dog.”

“Ain’t nobody even whistlin’ at you,” he said, annoyed.

Dee-Dee rolled her eyes. Malik rolled his past her to me and twirled his yellow tiger’s eye Shooter between his thumb and index finger. The Shooter was the coveted marble because it was the biggest in the set and was guaranteed to hit several marbles at once. We played for keeps. Over the years, we’d all owned each other’s Shooters at one time or another. Malik currently owned my blue tiger’s eye Shooter, which I’d been trying to win back for months. Today could be my lucky day, I thought. I hesitated and considered my options.

Dee-Dee grabbed my elbow and snatched me away in response. “She don’t wanna play with you, Malik. We got other things to do.” 

“She got a mouth. Don’t you, Zay?”

“Yeah. So?”

“You oughta try using it,” he said.

“Shut up, Malik,” I said.

Dee-Dee and I walked elbow in elbow across the playground. I felt so happy inside, my cheeks were beginning to hurt. Then I realized I must have been smiling super hard. I looked around to see who was watching. I always looked around to see who was watching because someone always was.

Next thing I know, Melody brought her scrawny behind over and whispered something in Dee-Dee’s ear. As Melody slithered away, Dee-Dee released my elbow and scratched her head. I kept my hand stuffed in my pocket to make it easier for her to put it back where she’d had it, but when she finished scratching, she dropped her arm at her side and left it there.

“What did she say?” I asked.

“Nothing,” Dee-Dee said.

“Ummm-hmmm,” I said, trying hard not to nag. Momma got on Daddy’s last nerve nagging him.

“I said it was nothing, okay?” Dee-Dee said for good measure.

She glanced over at Melody, then refocused her attention down to her shoes. It felt like she was ashamed to be hanging out with me. And since I wasn’t forcing her to be there, I also couldn’t understand why she was doing something she didn’t want to do. That was so unlike her. I didn’t think anyone could get Dee-Dee to do something she didn’t want to do.

I was sure of one thing: I didn’t trust Melody as far as I could throw her. Some days I wished I could throw her into the rat- and roach-infested Dumpster behind Giant Market. She was the kind of girl that would smile in your face and talk about you behind your back. And she had this way of looking down her nose at me, as if she was better than me. I had no idea why she couldn’t stand me. Sure, I’d snatched the head off her brand-new Tressy doll, but she shouldn’t have been shaking it in my face in the first place. That wasn’t reason enough to hate me.

Dee-Dee grabbed my elbow and yanked me in the direction of the swings. Instead of getting on one so I could push her, she sat down in the grass just beyond. I looked at the swings and then down at Dee-Dee and reluctantly joined her. We didn’t talk. I sat there waiting for her to say something, but she just snatched at one blade of grass after another. So, I lay back and locked my hands under my head. Thick white clouds drifted across the pale blue sky. An airplane with TWA painted on the back fin flew overhead, its wheels descending. In less than five minutes, it would touch down on the tarmac at LAX, ten miles away. I watched it until it flew out of view. I couldn’t wait to take my first plane ride. Daddy said he was going to take me to New York City when I got old enough to enjoy it. When I asked him how long that was going to take, he said, “I don’t know. Keep living.”

“I’m bored,” Dee-Dee announced. “Come on. Let’s go behind the building. I wanna show you something.”

Why did she want to go behind the building with me? I wondered. We’d never gone there before. Only fast girls went behind the building to let the boys feel them up. Is that what Melody whispered in Dee-Dee’s ear? Were they going to get me back there to let some boy try to feel me up? Well, I wasn’t about to let that happen. Nope, I decided. I’m not going.

Dee-Dee was halfway across the yard before she realized I wasn’t behind her. She marched back over and planted her hands on her narrow hips.

“Now what’s wrong?” she asked.

“Why do you want to go behind the building with me all of a sudden?”

She frowned. “Because I want to show you something.”

“Why can’t you show me right here?” I asked.

“Because I can’t.”

When I still didn’t move, she added, “Come on, Zay. We’re best friends, aren’t we? Don’t you trust me?”

Nope, I said to myself. “You promise you ain’t up to something?”

“I swear!” she said, sticking her pinky out to prove it.

I watched her left eyebrow. It didn’t move. Maybe she was telling the truth for a change.

“It doesn’t feel like we’re best friends,” I said. “Especially now that you’re friends with Melody.”

“She’s just a friend. Not like us. We’re always gonna be best friends.”

“All right,” I said, giving in like I always did.

I folded my pinky in hers, and off we went across the yard to a path that led down the width of the school. To my left was the ivy-covered chain-link fence that separated us from Compton Avenue. To my right, the brick wall of the auditorium that protected us from prying eyes. Halfway down the path, Dee-Dee stopped. I shoved my hands in my pockets and waited. She stood there looking like she had no idea what to do next.

Finally, she licked her lips and said, “Have you kissed a boy yet?”

I stared dumbfounded. She knew damn well I hadn’t kissed a boy.

“No,” I said.

“Don’t you want to?” she asked.

I held onto the dumbfounded look. “Nope.”

“Listen, Zay. You need to come out of your shell. People are talking about you, and I’m getting tired of sticking up for you. You never talk to any of the boys, and none of the girls want to play with you because …”

I waited for her to finish. When she didn’t, I looked behind me to make sure I wasn’t about to get ambushed by some boy. She was getting tired of sticking up for me? Who was she kidding? Best friends aren’t supposed to get tired of sticking up for each other. Malik never got tired. And neither would I. I opened my mouth to say that but decided it wasn’t worth it because she’d have an excuse. Instead, I asked, “Because what?” not sure I wanted to hear the answer.

“Nothing. It’s not important. It’s just that I would much rather play with you than Melody and her stuck-up friends. But we’re getting older, and we gotta start acting our age. I’d probably still be acting like … I mean, dressing like … Well, I would have never known what was waiting for me if I hadn’t kissed Kevin Monroe.”

“What? What does that have to do with anything?”

I turned to leave.

“Zay, don’t go.” She gave me that begging puppy dog weepy eyed look, the one that made it impossible for me to say no even though I knew it was all an act.

“I think once you kiss a boy or have a boy give you some attention, you’ll start wanting to be more like us. I mean, dress like us. And who better than your best friend to teach you how to kiss? Then I’m gonna help you get a boyfriend.”

“Why do I need a boyfriend?”

And why was everyone so damned concerned about what I needed? I wondered. First Momma, then Nana, then Aunt Evelyn, and now Dee-Dee. It just didn’t make any sense.

“Because you can’t be a tomboy all your life,” she responded as if that was answer enough.

I didn’t feel like arguing. I also hoped she knew I had no intention of kissing any boys no matter how many lessons she gave me. I felt too much like one to ever consider kissing one, and I didn’t see that changing anytime soon. On the other hand, the idea of kissing Dee-Dee wasn’t so bad. So, I pretended to be the apt pupil and allowed her to pull me closer.

As I slowly inhaled the coconut oil in her hair and the Nivea lotion on her skin, a jumble of emotions shot through me. Happy. Anxious. Excited. Uncomfortable.

“God is always watching,” I heard Momma say in my head.

The thought frightened me and should have been reason enough for me to push Dee-Dee away and run, but I didn’t. Instead, I rubbed my palms against my pant leg and willed the stirring in my stomach to go away.

“Close your eyes,” she instructed.

I looked at her one last time and pushed the frowning face of Jesus away as my eyes slipped shut. She leaned in, her breath warm on my face, and then pressed her lips gently against my own. Love shot through my body like a lightning bolt across a black sky. And right there, sandwiched between the brick wall of the school auditorium and the ivy-covered fence, I thought, this must be love.

I counted off the seconds our lips stayed mashed together. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. It was the sweetest five seconds of my misinformed, maladjusted life. I hoped Dee-Dee felt it, too, but when I opened my eyes, she was giving me a strange look.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” she asked.

I had no idea how I was looking, although I could have guessed. I tried to straighten my face out. Dee-Dee wiped her lips with the back of her hand and said, “You didn’t like that, did you? You weren’t supposed to like it! Ugghhh. That’s nasty!”

Heartbroken and humiliated, I wiped my lips and said, “Who said I liked it?”

Dee-Dee mumbled something under her breath and stormed off.

 

* * * * * *

 

The warning bell rang. I stood there a moment, trying to compose myself before I hurried out from behind the building. The classes were lining up to go back in. Dee-Dee slipped in line behind Melody and looked around conspiratorially. She whispered something that caused Melody to giggle into her hand. I wasn’t worried about them laughing at me. I knew Dee-Dee would never have admitted to kissing me. I giggled too, like I was in on the joke, and tried to slide in line behind Dee-Dee. Melody crowded me out.

“Dang, Zayla. Why you gotta keep following me around?” Dee-Dee said. “I’ll see you in class.”

“Yeah. Why don’t you go to the end of the line where you belong?” Melody chimed in.

“Why don’t you drop dead?” I responded.

I went to the end of the line, hurt and confused. Ten minutes earlier, we were kissing, and now I’m standing at the end of the line? What had I done so wrong to deserve this? I never stood at the end of the line. Ever. I told her I didn’t like the kiss. I even wiped it off my lips the same way she had, when I would have preferred not to. And what kind of way is that to treat your so-called best friend? I wanted to shout.

“What’s wrong with you?” Malik asked, jumping in line behind me.

“Nothing,” I said.

“Then why you at the end of the line looking like somebody killed your dog?”

“I don’t have a dog.”

“I know that, dummy! What happened? Who did it? Was it Dee-Dee? It’s always Dee-Dee. Why are you even still friends with her? I wouldn’t still be your friend if you treated me like that.”

I sighed with relief when Mr. Bixby called Malik’s class to go in. When Mrs. Fitzgerald called for our class, I kept my place at the end of the line. Daddy told me I could never play poker because I wore my feelings right on my face. Happy smile. Sad frown. Heartbroken cry. I wiped the tears away and followed my class inside.

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