In the stillness of the early morning, dreams are being dreamed and slumber goes unaware. While we laugh, fuss, and talk together as a family throughout the day, the creaks of the house, the hum of the refrigerator, and the rattle of the box fan speak volumes at dawn.
Sunday mornings were slow days because there was no school, and no one had to go to work. For me, that meant that I could sleep in all day if I wanted.
But to my surprise, my mother woke me up early, and I was smoking mad. I had been chasing the same dream all week long, and it was interrupted every time because I had to get up and get ready for school or get up and get the trash ready for pick-up.
In my dream, I was on a hot date with the Halle Berry from the movie Boomerang and not the Halle Berry from the movie Monster’s Ball. Each time, we’re dining at this beautiful seafood place, and every time that we come to the moment where we’re about to kiss and make out, something or someone would interfere, and then she’s gone.
My mother stood at my bedroom door waiting for me to get up and out of bed. Again, she called my name, but this time with my own shoe thrown at me.
As I got out of bed and stretched the lingering sleep out of me, I lazily walked into the kitchen. My mother was standing in front of the sink putting a ham hock into a pool of water so that it would be thawed out by the time she returned home from church.
Sundays were the days when my mother would usually cook a big meal that consisted of butter beans with a ham hock, skillet cornbread, sweet potatoes, rice with brown gravy on the side, pork chops or either fried chicken, peach cobbler, and a pitcher of sun tea or lemonade.
Most of my friends would show up on a Sunday to watch sports with me on the Zenith 25-inch floor-model T.V., and of course to eat some good ol’ soul food.
Still quite early, the doorbell rang, and I saw that it was my neighborhood friend Randy White, who lived only two houses down from me. He was a couple of years older than me, but we rode our bikes together all the time, and we would pick blackberries and plums on the dirt road down from our houses.
When I opened the door to let him in, we gave each other a dab and then he spoke pleasantly to my mother. Still dressed in her house gown and with rollers in her hair, my mother had a smile but a receptive look on her face. My mother didn’t like for people to show up this early at our house and especially not before everyone was up and about. A clean house with all the beds made would suffice.
After salutations, he asked me if I wanted to go fishing with him, Sugarbear, and Weasel. Before I could even say a word, my mother adamantly said no.
I wanted to protest, but she held up her hand and said that I was to stay at the house and clean the grill as well as remove the boxes from the storage room like she asked me to do last weekend.
I remembered her telling me to do those things, but it was such a beautiful, warm day that day, and I didn’t want to waste it doing some chores.
Randy and I looked at each other with smirks, knowing full well that I was planning on going fishing as soon as my mother left for church. I dilly-dallied outside in the storage room until I heard her car start. After she spoke to our next door neighbor, she finally left for church dressed in her lilac dress and matching hat.
When I went to meet Randy, he was sitting outside his house on a broken-down car with a sad face. He told me that his mother told him not to go anywhere either. He was the baby of the family, and his parents didn’t want him out in the mean streets. There was so much that could go wrong and that will go wrong.
After about 30 minutes of throwing rocks at the garbage barrels in the backyard, his parents finally left the house. With the both of us planning to be disobedient to our parents, we got everything together for our fishing expedition.
With everything in tow, myself, Randy, Sugarbear, and Weasel headed down the road when the chain on my bike broke. We all tried to fix it but we didn’t have enough chain to do so.
Unable to go, they left me behind and I watched them get smaller and smaller until they were gone. I had to push my bike back down the road to my house. With every step, I didn’t know if I was supposed to be aggravated or elated. On the one hand, I was pissed, cause I wanted to go fishing and talk much noise about how many I’d caught compared to the others. But on the other hand, I felt like it was some kind of divine intervention. My mom had told me not to go and now she was at the house of God talking to praising the Lord. After moping around for a few minutes, I went ahead and cleaned the grill and removed the boxes from the storage room like my mother had asked me to.
The day went on somewhat cloudier than what we were expecting. Soon, my mother returned home from church none-the-wiser about my little plot. She cooked a spectacular meal, and I enjoyed every bite of it.
After eating my mother’s delicious meal, I walked outside to sit under the car porch. As I sat, a nice and gentle breeze cooled me from the sizzling sun.
The sweat that soaked my shirt was irritating earlier but now was a blessing. And so I sat there just watching the activity flow up and down the block.
Some of the kids were racing their bikes up and down the street, while others were playing softball in the backyards of the houses.
I saw a kite steadily ascending up in the clear-blue skies and then another one came into view but was struggling against the wind. I was eager to join in on the fun, but I remained still.
I could hear my mother playing Mahalia Jackson’s gospel song inside of the house, and it all seemed like a pretty fair day on my side of town.
As I looked back down the block, I saw a little hummingbird flying around my mother’s flower garden, and I was amazed at the way it zipped here and there around the many flowers.
My attention was taken until I heard the scream of some worn-down brake shoes on a vehicle. My head swung to the right, and that’s when I spotted the black and white police car getting ready to turn on my street.
We didn’t usually get city cops down this way, past the city line into the county line. With suspicious eyes, I watched the police car slowly cruise past my house. I could see two figures with shades on through the lightly-tinted window, but I couldn’t make out who they were. With their destination in sight, they never even turned to look in my direction.
The fact that Randy never returned home had escaped my mind until I saw the police car turn into his driveway. The police were known to come and harass people in my neighborhood whenever something was stolen around town or in the uppity neighborhoods.
I remembered when they came to my house to question me one day when I was spotted riding through the all-white neighborhoods with the pretty manicured lawns. I had to admit, they had some nice stuff in their neighborhoods, and it was a far cry from my neighborhood with the broken-down cars piled everywhere and the much needed paint jobs on some houses. The air even smelled rich in the all-white neighborhoods, or shall I say unpolluted. There were garbage barrels always burning on my block, but none of that mattered when there was soul food cooking because that aroma could slice through anything and find some hungry soul rubbing their belly.
But then my wandering thoughts were interrupted when I heard a mother’s scream. I could see the people that were playing softball in the backyards easing towards Randy’s house. Curiosity and a sense of someone’s pain brought nosy neighbors to the forefront.
The news in the hood slowly but surely made its way up and down the block, and you could hear the soft sobs of people standing around.
I could hear others say that Randy had drowned while fishing on the Big Black River, but my heart didn’t want to believe the bad news. My eyes stayed glued to the front door of his house, but I honestly didn’t know what I was expecting to see.
As if his eulogy was already being read, people were talking about how Randy was well-liked by everyone and that he was a good person. The truth of the matter is that we both shared that laid back, quiet demeanor. We were two peas in the same pod.
And now, here I stood all by myself, watching the police exit the place that was his home. Once again, the police car slowly cruised past my house. I wanted to go down to Randy’s house and ask the family what happened. I wanted to go and hug his mother and even grieve with the family.
I wanted so many things, but my legs felt like they were stuck in concrete. My mother came to the door and told me to come inside the house. I’d heard the phone ringing while everyone was talking and crying.
Apparently, my next-door neighbor had told her mother that I was planning to go fishing as well, and then my mother was informed of the plot. When my mother asked me about the broken chain on my bicycle, I knew that she knew. I was seriously expecting some punishment, and so I sat there in silence with beads of nervous sweat dripping down from my forehead. Rather than look my mother in her eyes, I looked at the family photos lined up against the living room wall.
I’d seen these photos a million times, and I never noticed that there was not one with me and my grandparents together. We saw them all the time, and we took pictures with them all the time, but none were on the wall.
My mother unexpectedly hugged me. Like a newborn baby, I nestled into her arms, and I wanted to ask her why something like that would happen to Randy, but my lips were as sealed as a zip-loc bag. It seemed like the whole world around me had just crumbled like a crushed saltine cracker, and my heart was beating at a high rate.
In her arms, I could hear my mother’s heartbeat, and I felt in tune with it. She didn’t say a word—her beating heart spoke volumes to me, and I understood. Her tears fell from her eyes to the top of my head.
When she got her composure, she looked at me, my brother, and my two sisters and said, “There’s plenty of danger out there in the world, and I’m only trying to protect you from what is unknown to you.” She said, “You have to learn to listen to me and your father and do what we tell you to do when we tell you to do it.”
I thought about my chain breaking earlier that day and how that could have been me who slipped on the wet bank and fell into the river. I saw the late news on T.V., and the reporter talked about how Randy got hung on some barbed wire and drowned, even though the other two fishermen had made several attempts to save him
The water on the river was just too choppy and Sugarbear and Weasel couldn’t get Randy untangled. I turned the T.V. off after hearing that and fell to my knees
I said my prayers for the first time in what seems like a long time, and then I went to bed. Sleep didn’t come easy at first, but the exhaustion kicked in, and I was out like a busted light bulb. I guess Halle Berry was busy cause she alluded to my dreams that night.
It rained the next day, and the bus ride to school seemed strange. When we were usually loud and joking around, everyone was now quiet and mulling over the tragedy that had happened in our community. I just looked out the window the whole time as raindrops slowly oozed down the fogged out window. It seemed as though Mother Nature was crying for me, but I wondered if she was feeling my pain as well. My bus seat was occupied by only me that day, and I just didn't have anything to give. One thing we all know is life doesn’t stop—everything keeps on moving regardless. You have to make the very best of what the Lord gives you before He comes to take it.
A wise man once said, ‘The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” —Job 1:21
I wish I could say I learned my lesson especially from something that was close enough for me to touch. The fact of the matter is, I disobeyed my mother two weeks later, and I was punished for it. People don’t listen and sometimes there’s hell to pay for hard-headedness.
But that’s a story for another time.
Justin H. Underwood was born on October 6th, 1973 and is one of four children to William and Mary L. Underwood. His parents were moderate people who valued morals, hard work, and education. At a young age, Justin thrived at high levels in public school. He played musical instruments while attending school in Rochester, New York, and he participated in class plays and musicals at middle school in Flora, Mississippi. At East Flora High School, he read all types of English literature in his English honors class and he learned to write poetry and short stories. But such a zeal at a young age was cast aside when he went to jail at the tender age of 18 years old. Now on Death Row, the light of invigoration flickers in his eyes where many would see darkness.