When I was six an old bald white man wearing a black robe sitting in a very high desk with flags behind him told my social worker Ms. Leticia and some Sheriffs, who wouldn’t let me hug my Tio Gjeo, or Maggie, or my mom that I had to go into “foster care”. Since he didn’t look at me or ask me anything I thought he was God, because had he been just a regular man, my uncle would have said “no” and had taken me home. My uncle was scared of God, he told me once. I was just scared of not knowing anything.
When I was six I could not see my family because Ms. Leticia told God that they didn’t go do some classes and that I was unsafe with my uncle and his girlfriend Maggie. I wasn’t supposed to see my parents without someone watching them, watching me. I heard Ms. Leticia tell God that my mom preferred if I stayed with my uncle because she didn’t want any problems with my dad. What my mom really meant was that she did not want to fight with my dad. When the grown-ups were talking about me I kept looking at God so that he could read my brain and see that I was o.k. with my uncle, because he would let me see my mom and my dad when I wanted to like a kid is supposed to be able to do; but God wouldn’t look at me so he didn’t know.
When I was six, I went to live at Ms. Belle’s house in Hawthorne, California, just a few miles north from my paternal aunts’ and sister’s home in North Redondo Beach. My sister and I had two aunts from Lisbon who were older than my Gjeo and my daddy. They stank like arm pits and never laughed and didn’t like my uncle. On the few occasions I went to visit my sister Dorothea, they would yell in my uncle’s language and he would say “porra” real loud and he and I would leave. My sister lived with them, I never did. I didn’t even know their name. I think they finally died.
Ms. Belle was petite, with caramel skin, green eyes and curly golden hair. Ms. Belle smelled like sweetness and cinnamon and she hugged really, really nice. I used to like being hugged because I would feel safe and not like I had to run all the time. But then I had to stop liking a lot of things like being hugged because I didn’t want to get used to something that was going to be taken away from me and then I’d be sad again. She would smile at people and they would turn all yellow around their body; she was always green around her body. I stopped being able to see those color mists when I grew up and turned seven.
Ms. Belle’s husband was Mr. James. His cloud was blue and white sometimes. He scared me because he was tall and had big strong legs and arms and a big full head of grey brownish hair and a great big beard. He was black. I was used to beautiful ebony and caramel colored ladies from my mom’s dress sewing business, but I had never seen a real live black man in person in Los Feliz as a little kid. And, Mr. James was bigger than the white God who sent me here so then I thought he must be God’s boss and I better behave. But, after a little while, I grew up and Mr. James was like my Gjeo, but he was always asking me if I’d like to do this or eat that and he would tell me stories of when he was a boy and he didn’t like to go fishing with his dad and then I felt good because sometimes I didn’t like going on my daddy’s motorcycle.
At Ms. Belle’s we had “supper” and prayed before we ate. Mr. James would sit at the head of the table, but Ms. Belle would make him move the plates of food around and pick up the dishes when we were done. The first night of supper I stared at him. I was afraid and he looked at me and smiled with his gold teeth like a pirate. Then he looked at Ms. Belle and said, “Oooohhh wwhhhheeeee, this one is gonna steal yo’ heart woman!” Then he’d laugh like the Un-Cola Nut guy from the 7-Up commercials. I still remember how my little mouth felt when it stretched to the right and my cheeks got fat because I smiled, I didn’t mean to but I did and it felt good.
When I was six Ms. Belle would stay up with me through long nights of fever, nightmares and bed wetting. She would read to me from the Bible and Dr. Seuss and give me candy and tell me it was o.k. if I didn’t want to talk. I did not talk anymore to anyone because in my six year old logic talking meant getting fucked over by the white tall desk God and getting taken away from your family.
As the weeks went by I stopped being six and I was Grady again. Ms. Belle and Mr. James became Momma and Pops in my heart, cus I had decided I wasn’t gonna talk from my mouth. Pops liked Jazz but he couldn’t listen to it in the house because Momma would say that was devil’s music. He would take Elroy, my blind teenaged foster brother and me to his garage to watch him work on 50’s cars’ engines, but in Elroy’s case to hear him work. He would play Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday, Bessie Brown and Miles Davis. They were a hell of a lot better than AC/DC, but I never told anyone. My love of Jazz and Blues had become one of my first good secrets in all of my life. It felt good to have good secrets, finally, because I was getting old and old people need to have good secrets to teach the young.