“Proper Library”


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  1. Addie Says:

    Proper Library
    by Carolyn Ferrell

    Boys, men, girls, children, mothers, babies. You got to feed them. You always got to keep them fed. Winter summer. They always have to feel satisfied. Winter summer. But then you stop and ask: Where is the food going to come from? Because it’s never-ending, never-stopping. Where? Because your life is spent on feeding them and you never stop thinking about where the food is going to come from.

    Formula, pancakes, syrup, milk, roast turkey with cornbread stuffing, Popsicles, love, candy, tongue kisses, hugs, kisses behind backs, hands on faces, warmth, tenderness, Boston cream pie, fucking in the butt. You got to feed them, and it’s always going to be you. Winter summer.

    My ma says to me, Let’s practice the words this afternoon when you get home, baby. I nod to her. I don’t have to use any words with her to let her know I will do what she wants. When family people come over and they see me and Ma in the kitchen like that with the words, they say she has the same face as the maid in the movies. She does have big brown hands like careful shovels, and she loves to touch and pat and warm you up with them. And when she walks, she shuffles. But if anyone is like the maid in the movies, it is Aunt Estine. She likes to give mouth, ’specially when I got the kids on my hands. She’s sassy. She’s got what people call a bad attitude. She makes sure you hear her heels clicking all the time, ’specially when you are lying in bed before dawn and thinking things in order, how you got to keep moving, all day long. Click, click. Ain’t nobody up yet? Click. Lazy-ass Negroes, you better not be ’specting me to cook y’all breakfast when you do get up! Click, click. I’m hungry. Click. I don’t care what time it is, I’m hungry y’all and I’m tired and depressed and I need someone to talk to. Well, the hell with all y’all. That’s my last word. Click, click, click.

    My ma pats her hands on my schoolbag, which is red like a girl’s, but that’s all right. She pats it like it was my head. The books I have in it are: Biology, Woodworking for You, Math 1, The History of Civilization.

    I’m supposed to be in Math 4, but the people keep holding me back. I know it’s no real fault of mine. I been teaching the kids Math 4 from a book I took out the Lending Mobile in the schoolyard. The kids can do most of Math 4. They like the way I teach it to them, with real live explanations, not the kind where you are supposed to have everything already in your head and it’s just waiting to come out. And the kids don’t ask to see if I get every one right. They trust me. They trust my smart. They just like the feel of the numbers and seeing them on a piece of paper: division of decimals, division of fractions. It’s these numbers that keep them moving and that will keep them moving when I am gone. At school I just keep failing the City Wide Tests every May and the people don’t ask any questions: they just hold me back. Cousin Cee Cee said, If you wasn’t so stupid you would realize the fact of them holding you back till you is normal.

    The kids are almost as sad as Ma when I get ready to go to school in the morning. They cry and whine and carry on and ask me if they can sit on my lap just one more time before I go, but Ma is determined. She checks the outside of my books to make sure nothing is spilled over them or that none of the kids have torn out any pages. Things got to be in place. There got to be order if you gonna keep on moving, and Ma knows that deep down. This morning I promise to braid Lasheema’s hair right quick before I go, and as I’m braiding, she’s steady smiling her four-year-old grin at Shawn, who is a boy and therefore has short hair, almost a clean shave, and who can’t be braided and who weeps with every strand I grease, spread, and plait.

    Ma warns me, Don’t let them boys bother you now, Lorrie. Don’t let ’em.

    I tell her, Ma, I have not let you down in a long time. I know what I got to do for you.

    She smiles but I know it is a fake smile, and she says, Lorrie, you are my only son, the only real man I got. I don’t want them boys to get you from me.

    I tell her because it’s the only thing I can tell her, You cooking up something special tonight?

    Ma smiles and goes back to fixing pancake mix from her chair in the kitchen. The kids are on their way to forgetting about me ’cause they love pancakes more than anything and that is the only way I’ll get out of here today. Sheniqua already has the bottle of Sugar Shack Syrup and Tonya is holding her plate above her nappy lint head.

    Tommy, Lula Jean’s Navy husband, meets me at the front door as I open it. Normally he cheers me up by testing me on Math 4 and telling me what a hidden genius I am, a still river running deep, he called it one time. He likes to tell me jokes and read stories from the Bible out loud. And he normally kisses my sister Lula Jean right where I and everybody else can see them, like in the kitchen or in the bedroom on the bed, surrounded by at least nine kids and me, all flaming brown heads and eyes. He always says: This is what love should be. And he searches into Lula Jean’s face for whole minutes.

    I’m leaving for Jane Addams High School and I meet Tommy and he has a lady tucked under his arm and it ain’t Lula Jean. Her hair is wet and smells like mouthwash and I hate him in a flash. I never hate anybody, but now I hate him. I know that when I close the door behind me a wave of mouths will knock Tommy and this new lady down but it won’t drown them. My sister Anita walks into the room and notices and carries them off into the bathroom, quick and silent. But before that she kisses me on my cheek and pats her hand, a small one of Ma’s, on my chest. She whispers, You are my best man, remember that. She slips a letter knife in my jacket pocket. She says, If that boy puts his thing on you, cut it off. I love you, baby. She pushes me out the door.

    Layla Jackson who lives in the downtown Projects and who might have AIDS comes running up to me as I walk out our building’s door to the bus stop. She is out of breath. I look at her and could imagine a boy watching her chest heave up and down like that and suddenly get romantic feelings, it being so big and all, split like two kickballs bouncing. I turn my eyes to hers, which are crying. Layla Jackson’s eyes are red. She has her baby Tee Tee in her arms but it’s cold out here and she doesn’t have a blanket on him or nothing. I say to her, Layla, honey, you gonna freeze that baby to death.

    And I take my jacket off and put it over him, the tiny bundle.

    Layla Jackson says, Thanks Lorrie man I got a favor to ask you please don’t tell me no please man.

    Layla always makes her words into a worry sandwich.

    She says, Man, I need me a new baby-sitter ’cause I been took Tee Tee over to my mother’s but now she don’t want him with the others and now I can’t do nothing till I get me a sitter.

    I tell her, Layla, I’m going back to school now. I can’t watch Tee Tee in the morning but if you leave him with me in the cafeteria after fifth period I’ll take him on home with me.

    She says, That means I got to take this brat to Introduction to Humanities with me. Shit, man. He’s gonna cry and I won’t pass the test on Spanish Discoverers. Shit, man.

    Then Layla Jackson thinks a minute and says, Okay, Lorrie, I’ll give Tee to you at lunch in the cafeteria, bet. And I’ll be ’round your place ’round six for him or maybe seven, thanks, man.

    Then she bends down and kisses Tee Tee on his forehead and he glows with what I know is drinking up an oasis when you are in the desert for so long. And she turns and walks to the downtown subway, waving at me. At the corner she comes running back because she still has my jacket and Tee Tee is waving the letter knife around like a flag. She says that her cousin Rakeem was looking for me and to let me know he would waiting for me ’round his way. Yes. I say to her, See you, Layla, honey.

    Before I used to not go to Jane Addams when I was supposed to. I got in the habit of looking for Rakeem, Layla’s cousin, underneath the Bruckner Expressway, where the Spanish women sometimes go to buy oranges and watermelons and apples cheap. He was what you would call a magnet, only I didn’t know that then. I didn’t understand the different flavors of the pie. I saw him one day and I had a feeling like I wanted him to sit on my lap and cradle me. That’s when I had to leave school. Rakeem, he didn’t stop me. His voice was just as loud as the trucks heading towards Manhattan on the Bruckner above us: This is where your real world begins, man. The women didn’t watch us. We stared each other in the eyes. Rakeem taught me how to be afraid of school and of people watching us. He said, Don’t go back, and I didn’t. A part of me was saying that his ear was more delicious than Math 4. I didn’t go to Jane Addams for six months.

    On the BX 17 bus I see Tammy Ferguson and her twins and Joe Smalls and that white girl Laura. She is the only white girl in these Bronx projects that I know of. I feel sorry for her. She has blue eyes and red hair and one time when the B-Crew-Girls were going to beat her butt in front of the building, she broke down crying and told them that her real parents were black from the South. She told them she was really a Negro and they all laughed and that story worked the opposite than we all thought. Laura became their friend, like the B-Crew-Girls’ mascot. And now she’s still their friend. People may laugh when she ain’t around but she’s got her back covered. She’s loyal and is trying to wear her thin flippy hair in cornrows, which in the old days woulda made the B-Crew, both boys and girls, simply fall out. When Laura’s around, the B-Crew-Girls love to laugh. She looks in my direction when I get on the bus and says, Faggot.

    She says it loud enough for all the grown-up passengers to hear. They don’t look at me, they keep their eyes on whatever their eyes are on, but I know their ears are on me. Tammy Ferguson always swears she would never help a white girl, but now she can’t pass up this opportunity, so she says, You tight-ass homo, go suck some faggot dick. Tammy’s kids are taking turns making handprints on the bus window.

    I keep moving. It’s the way I learned: keep moving. I go and sit next to Joe Smalls in the back of the bus and he shows me the Math 3 homework he got his baby’s mother Tareen to do for him. He claims she is smarter now than when she was in school at Jane Addams in the spring. He laughs.

    The bus keeps moving. I keep moving even though I am sitting still. I feel all of the ears on us, on me and Joe and the story of Tareen staying up till 4 a.m. on the multiplication of fractions and then remembering that she had promised Joe some ass earlier but seeing that he was sound asleep snoring anyway, she worked on ahead and got to the percent problems by the time the alarm went off. Ha ha. Joe laughs, I got my girl in deep check.
    Ha ha.

    All ears are on us, but mainly on me. Tammy Ferguson is busy slapping the twins to keep quiet and sit still, but I can feel Laura’s eyes like they are a silent machine gun. Faggot faggot suck dick faggot. Now repeat that one hundred times in one minute and that’s how I am feeling.

    Keep moving. The bus keeps rolling and you also have to keep moving. Like water like air like outer space. I always pick something for my mind. Like today I am remembering the kids and how they will be waiting for me after fifth period and I remember the feel of Lasheema’s soft dark hair.

    Soft like the dark hair that covers me, not an afro, but silky hair, covering me all over. Because I am so cold. Because I am so alone. A mat of thick delicious hair that blankets me in warmth. And therefore safety. And peace. And solitude. And ecstasy. Lasheema and me are ecstatic when we look at ourselves in the mirror. She’s only four and I am fourteen. We hold each other smiling.

    Keep moving. Then I am already around the corner from school while the bus pulls away with Laura still on it because she has fallen asleep in her seat and nobody has bothered to touch her.

    On the corner of Prospect Ave. and East 167th Street where the bus lets me out, I see Rakeem waiting for me. I am not supposed to really know he’s there for me and he is not supposed to show it. He is opening a Pixie Stick candy and then he fixes his droopy pants so that they are hanging off the edge of his butt. I can see Christian Dior undies. When I come nearer he throws the Pixie Stick on the ground next to the other garbage and gives me his hand just like any B-Crew-Boy would do when he saw his other crew member. Only we are not B-Crew members, we get run over by the B-Crew.

    He says, Yo, man, did you find Layla?

    I nod and listen to what he is really saying.

    Rakeem says, Do you know that I got into Math 3? Did you hear that shit? Ain’t that some good shit?

    He smiles and hits me on the back and he lets his hand stay there.

    I say, See what I told you before, Rakeem? You really got it in you to move on. You doing all right, man.

    He grunts and looks at his sneakers. Last year the B-Crew boys tried to steal them from him but Rakeem screamed at them that he had AIDS from his cousin and they ran away rubbing their hands on the sides of the buildings on the Grand Concourse.

    Rakeem says, Man, I don’t have nothing in me except my brain that tells me: Nigger, first thing get your ass up in school. Make them know you can do it.

    I say, Rakeem, you are smart, man! I wish I had your smart. I would be going places if I did.

    He says, And then, Lorrie, I got to get people to like me and to stop seeing me. I just want them to think they like me. So I got to hide me for a while. Then you watch, Lorrie, man: much people will be on my side!

    I say to him, Rakeem, you got Layla and baby Tee Tee and all the teachers on your side. And you got smart. You have it made.

    He answers me after he fixes his droopy pants again so that they are hanging off exactly the middle of his ass: Man, they are whack! You know what I would like to do right now, Lorrie? You know what I would like? Shit, I ain’t seen you since you went back to school and since I went back. Hell, you know what I would like? But it ain’t happening ’cause you think Ima look at my cousin Layla and her bastard and love them and that will be enough. But it will never be enough.

    I think about sitting on his lap. I did it before but then I let months go by because it was under the Bruckner Expressway and I believed it could only last a few minutes. It was not like the kind of love when I had the kids because I believed they would last forever.

    He walks backwards away and when he gets to the corner, he starts running. No one else is on the street. He shouts, Rocky’s Pizza! Ima be behind there, man. We got school fooled. This is the master plan. Ima be there, Lorrie! Be there.

    I want to tell Rakeem that I have missed him and that I will not be there but he is gone. The kids are enough. The words are important. They are all enough.

    The front of Jane Addams is gray-green with windows with gates over all of them. I am on the outside.

    The bell rings first period and I am smiling at Mr. D’Angelo and feeling like this won’t be a complete waste of a day. The sun has hit the windows of Jane Addams and there is even heat around our books. Mr. D’Angelo notices me but looks away. Brandy Bailey, who doesn’t miss a thing, announces so that only us three will hear: Sometimes when a man’s been married long he needs to experience a new kind of loving, ain’t that what you think, Lorrie?

    For that she gets thrown out of the classroom and an extra day of in-school suspension. All ears are now on me and Mr. D’Angelo. I am beyond feeling but I know he isn’t. And that makes me happy in a way, like today ain’t going to be a complete waste of a day.

    He wipes his forehead with an imported handkerchief. He starts out saying, Class, what do we remember about the piston, the stem, and the insects? He gets into his questions and his perspiration stops and in two minutes he is free of me.

    And I’m thinking: Why couldn’t anything ever happen, why does every day start out one way hopeful but then point to the fact that ain’t nothing ever going to happen? The people here at school call me ugly, for one. I know I got bug eyes and I know I am not someone who lovely things ever happen to, but I ask you: Doesn’t the heart count? Love is a pie and I am lucky enough to have almost every flavor in mine. Mr. D’Angelo turns away from my desk and announces a surprise quiz and everybody groans and it is a sea of general unhappiness but no one is more than me, knowing that nothing will ever happen the way I’d like it to, not this flavor of the pie. And I am thinking: Mr. D’Angelo, do you know that I would give anything to be like you, what with all your smarts and words and you know how to make the people here laugh and they love you. And I would give anything if you would ask me to sit on your lap and ask me to bite into your ear so that it tingles like the bell that rips me in and out of your class. I would give anything. Love is a pie. Didn’t you know that? Mr. D’Angelo, I am in silent love in a loud body.

    So don’t turn away. Sweat.

    Mrs. Cabrini pulls me aside and whispers, My dear Lorrie, when are you ever going to pass this City Wide? You certainly have the brains. And I know that your intelligence will take you far, will open new worlds for you. Put your mind to your dreams, my dear boy, and you will achieve them. You are your own universe, you are your own shooting star.

    People ’round my way know me as Lorrie and the name stays. Cousin Cee Cee says the name fits and she smacks her gum in my face whenever she mentions that. She also adds that if anyone ever wants to kick my ass, she’ll just stand around and watch because a male with my name and who likes it just deserves to be watched when whipped.

    Ma named me for someone else. My real name is Lawrence Lincoln Jefferson Adams. It’s the name on my school records. It’s the name Ma says I got to put on my application to college when the time comes. She knows I been failing these City Wide Tests and that’s why she wants to practice words with me every day. She laughs when I get them wrong but she’s afraid I won’t learn them on my own, so she asks me to practice them with her and I do. Not every day, but a whole lot: look them up and pronounce them. Last Tuesday: Independence. Chagrin. Symbolism. Nomenclature. Filament. On Wednesday, only: Apocrypha. Ma says they have to be proper words with proper meanings from a dictionary. You got to say them right. This is important if you want to reach your destiny, Ma says.

    Like for instance the word Library. All my life I been saying that “Liberry.” And even though I knew it was a place to read and do your studying, I still couldn’t call it right. Do you see what I mean? I’m about doing things, you see, finally doing things right.

    Cousin Cee Cee always says, What you learning all that shit for? Don’t you know it takes more than looking up words to get into a college, even a damn community college? Practicing words like that! Is you a complete asshole?

    And her two kids, Byron and Elizabeth, come into the kitchen and ask me to teach them the words too, but Cee Cee says it will hurt their eyes to be doing all that reading and besides they are only eight and nine. When she is not around I give them words with up to ten letters, then they go back to TV with the other kids.

    When we have a good word sitting, me and Ma, she smooths my face with her hands and calls me Lawrence, My Fine Boy. She says, You are on your way to good things. You just got to do things the proper way.

    We kiss each other. Her hands are like the maid in the movies. I know I am taken care of.

    Zenzile Jones passes me a note in History of Civilization. It’s the part where Ptolemy lets everyone know the world is round. Before I open it, I look at her four desks away and I remember the night when I went out for baby diapers and cereal and found her crying in front of a fire hydrant. I let her cry on my shoulder. I told her that her father was a sick man for sucking on her like that.

    The note says, Please give me a chance.

    Estine Smith, my mother’s sister who wants me and the kids to call her by both names, can’t get out of her past. Sometimes I try on her clothes when I’m with the kids and we’re playing dress-up. My favorite dress is her blue organza without the back. I seen Estine Smith wear this during the daytime and I fell in love with it. I also admired her for wearing a dress with the back out in the day, but it was only a ten-second admiration. Because then she opens her mouth and she is forever in her past. Her favorite time to make us all go back to is when they lynched her husband, David Saul Smith, from a tree in 1986 and called the TV station to come and get a look. She can’t let us go one day without reminding us in words. I never want to be like her, ever. Everybody cries when they are in her words because they feel sorry for her, and Estine Smith is not someone but a walking hainted house.

    Third period. I start dreaming about the kids while the others are standing in line to use the power saw. I love to dream about the kids. They are the only others who think I am beautiful besides Ma and Anita. They are my favorite flavor of the pie, even if I got others in my mind.

    Most of the time there are eight but when my other aunt, Samantha, comes over I got three more. Samantha cries in the kitchen and shows Ma her blue marks and it seems like her crying will go on forever. Me, I want to take the kids’ minds away. We go into Ma’s room where there is the TV and we sing songs like “Old Gray Mare” and “Bingo Was His Name O” or new ones like “Why You Treat Me So Bad?” and “I Try to Let Go.” Or else I teach them Math 4. Or else I turn on the TV so they can watch Bugs or He-Man and so I can get their ironing done.

    Me, I love me some kids. I need me some kids.

    Joe Smalls talks to me in what I know is a friendly way. The others in Woodworking for You don’t know that. They are like the rest of the people who see me and hear the action and latch on.

    Joe Smalls says, Lorrie, man, that bitch Tareen got half the percentage problems wrong. Shit. Be glad you don’t have to deal with no dumb-ass Tareen bitch. She nearly got my ass a F in Math 3.

    I get a sad look on my face, understanding, but it’s a fake look because I’m feeling the rest of the ears on us, latching, readying. I pause to Heaven. I am thinking I wish Ma had taught me how to pray. But she doesn’t believe in God.

    Junior Sims says, Why you talking that shit, Joe, man? Lorrie don’t ever worry about bitches!

    Perry Samson says, No, Lorrie never ever thinks about pussy as a matter of fact. Never ever.

    Franklin says, Hey, Lorrie, man, tell me what you think about, then? What can be better than figuring out how you going to get that hole, man? Tell me what?

    Mr. Samuels, the teacher, turns off the power saw just when it gets to Barney Moore’s turn. He has heard the laughter from underneath the saw’s screeching. Everybody gets quiet. His face is like a piece of lumber. Mr. Samuels is never soft. He doesn’t fail me even though I don’t do any cutting or measuring or shellacking. He wants me the hell out of there.

    And after the saw is turned off, Mr. Samuels, for the first time in the world, starts laughing. The absolute first time. And everybody joins in because they are afraid of this and I laugh too because I’m hoping all the ears will go off me.

    Mr. Samuels is laughing Haw Haw like he’s from the country. Haw Haw. Haw Haw. His face is red. Everyone cools down and is just smiling now.

    Then he says, Class, don’t mess with the only girl we got in here!

    Now it’s laughter again.

    Daniel Fibbs says, Yeah, Mr. Samuels is on!

    Franklin laughs, No fags allowed, you better take your sissy ass out of here less you want me to cut it into four pieces.

    Joe Smalls is quiet and looking out the window.

    Junior Sims laughs, Come back when you start fucking bitches!

    Keep moving, keep moving.

    I pick up my red bag and wade towards the door. My instinct is the only thing that’s working, and it is leading me back to Biology. But first out the room. Inside me there is really nothing except for Ma’s voice: Don’t let them boys. But inside there is nothing else. My bones and my brain and my heart would just crumble if it wasn’t for that swirling wind of nothing in me that keeps me moving and moving.

    Perry laughs, I didn’t know Mr. Samuels was from the South.

    With his eyelashes, Rakeem swept the edges of my face. He let me know they were beautiful to him. His face went in a circle around mine and dipped in my eyes and dipped in my mouth. He traveled me to a quiet place where his hands were the oars and I drifted off to sleep. The thin bars of the shopping cart where I was sitting in made grooves in my back, but it was like they were rows of tender fingers inviting me to stay. The roar of the trucks was a lullaby.

    Layla Jackson comes running up to me but it’s only fourth period because she wants to try and talk some sense into Tyrone. She hands me little Tee Tee. Tyrone makes like he wants to come over and touch the baby but instead he flattens his back against the wall to listen to Layla. I watch as she oozes him. In a minute they are tongue-kissing. Because they are the only two people who will kiss each other. Everyone says that they gave themselves AIDS and now have to kiss each other because there ain’t no one else. People walk past them and don’t even notice that he has his hand up her shirt, squeezing the kickball.

    Tee Tee likes to be in my arms. I like for him to be there.

    The ladies were always buying all kinds of fruits and vegetables for their families underneath the Bruckner Expressway. They all talked Spanish and made the sign of the cross and asked God for forgiveness and gossiped.

    Rakeem hickeyed my neck. We were underneath the concrete bridge supports and I had my hands on the handle of a broken shopping cart, where I was sitting. Don’t go back, Rakeem was telling me, don’t go back. And he whispered in my ear. And I thought of all the words I had been practicing, and how I was planning to pass that City Wide. Don’t go back, he sang, and he sat me on his lap and he moved me around there. They don’t need you, he said, and you don’t need them.

    But I do, I told him.

    This feeling can last forever, he said.

    No, it can’t, I said, but I wound up leaving school for six months anyway. That shopping cart was my school.

    I am thinking: It will never be more. I hold Tee Tee carefully because he is asleep on my shoulder and I go to catch the BX 17 back to my building.

    Estine Smith stays in her past and that is where things are like nails. I want to tell her to always wear her blue organza without the back. If you can escape, why don’t you all the time? You could dance and fling your arms and maybe even feel love from some direction. You would not perish. You could be free.

    When I am around and she puts us in her past in her words, she tells me that if I hada twitched my ass down there like I do here, they woulda hung me up just by my black balls.

    The last day Rakeem and I were together, I told him I wanted to go back, to school, to everyone. The words, I tried to explain about the words to Rakeem. I could welcome him into my world if he wanted me to. Hey, wasn’t there enough room for him and me and the words?

    Hell no, he shouted, and all the Spanish women turned around and stared at us. He shouted, You are an ugly-ass bastard who will always be hated big time and I don’t care what you do; this is where your world begins and this is where your world will end. Fuck you. You are a pussy, man. Get the hell out my face.

    Ma is waiting for me at the front door, wringing her hands. She says it’s good that I am home because there is trouble with Tommy again and I need to watch him and the kids while she goes out to bring Lula Jean home from the movies, which is where she goes when she plans on leaving Tommy. They got four kids here and if Lula Jean leaves, I might have to drop out of school again because she doesn’t want to be tied to anything that has Tommy’s stamp on it.

    I set Tee Tee down next to Tommy on the sofa bed where I usually sleep. Tommy wakes up and says, Hey, man, who you bringing to visit me?

    I go into the kitchen to fix him some tea and get the kids’ lunch ready. Sheniqua is playing the doctor and trying to fix up Shawn, who always has to have an operation when she is the doctor. They come into the kitchen to hug my legs and then they go back in the living room.

    Tommy sips his tea and says, Who was that chick this morning, Lorrie, man?

    I say I don’t know. I begin to fold his clothes.

    Tommy says, Man, you don’t know these bitches out here nowadays. You want to show them love, a good time, and a real deep part of yourself and all they do is not appreciate it and try to make your life miserable.

    He says, Well, at least I got Lula. Now that’s some woman.

    And he is asleep. Sheniqua and her brother Willis come in and ask me if I will teach them Math 4 tonight. Aunt Estine rolls into the bedroom and asks me why do I feel the need to take care of this bum, and then she hits her head on the doorframe. She is clicking her heels. She asks, Why do we women feel we always need to teach them? They ain’t going to learn the right way. They ain’t going to learn shit. That’s why we always so alone. Click, click.

    The words I will learn before Ma comes home are: Soliloquy, Disenfranchise, Catechism. I know she will be proud. This morning before I left she told me she would make me a turkey dinner with all the trimmings if I learned four new words tonight. I take out my dictionary but then the kids come in and want me to give them a bath and baby Tee Tee has a fever and is throwing up all over the place. I look at the words and suddenly I know I will know them without studying.

    And I realize this in the bathroom and then again a few minutes later when Layla Jackson comes in cursing because she got a 60 on the Humanities quiz. She holds Tee but she doesn’t touch him. She thinks Tyrone may be going to some group where he is meeting other sick girls and she doesn’t want to be alone. She curses and cries, curses and cries. She asks me why things have to be so fucked. Her braids are coming undone and I tell her that I will tighten them up for her. That makes Layla Jackson stop crying. She says, And to top it off, Rakeem is a shit. He promised me he wouldn’t say nothing but now that he’s back in school he is broadcasting my shit all over the place. And that makes nobody like me. And that makes nobody want to touch me.

    I put my arm around Layla. Soon her crying stops and she is thinking about something else.

    But me, I know these new words and the old words without looking at them, without the dictionary, without Ma’s hands on my head. Lasheema and Tata come in and want their hair to be like Layla’s and they bring in the Vaseline and sit around my feet like shoes. Tommy wakes up still in sleep and shouts, Lula, get your ass on in here. Then he falls back to sleep.

    Because I know I will always be able to say the words on my own. I can do the words on my own and that is what matters. I have this flavor of the pie and I will always have it. Here in this kitchen I was always safe, learning the words till my eyes hurt. The words are in my heart.

    Ma comes in and shoves Lula Jean into a kitchen chair. She says, Kids, make room for your cousin, go in the other room and tell Tommy to get his lame ass out here. Layla, you can get your ass out of here and don’t bring it back no more with this child sick out his mind, do your ’ho’ing somewhere out on the street where you belong. Tommy, since when I need to tell you how to treat your wife? You are a stupid heel. Learn how to be a man.

    Everybody leaves and Ma changes.

    She says, I ain’t forgot that special dinner for you, baby. I’m glad you’re safe and sound here with me. Let’s practice later.

    I tell her, Okay, Ma, but I got to go meet Rakeem first.

    She looks at me in shock and then out the corner of my eye I can tell she wants me to say no, I’ll stay, I won’t go to him. Because she knows.

    But I’m getting my coat on and Ma has got what will be tears on her face because she can’t say no and she can’t ask any questions. Keep moving.

    And I am thinking of Rocky’s Pizza and how I will be when I get there and how I will be when I get home. Because I am coming back home. And I am going to school tomorrow. I know the words, and I can tell them to Rakeem and I can share what I know. Now he may be ready. I want him to say to me in his mind: Please give me a chance. And I know that behind Rocky’s Pizza is the only place where I don’t have to keep moving. Where there is not just air in me that keeps me from crumbling, but blood and meat and strong bones and feelings. I will be me for a few minutes behind Rocky’s Pizza and I don’t care if it’s just a few minutes. I pat my hair down in the mirror next to the kitchen door. I take Anita’s letter knife out my jacket pocket and leave it on the table next to where Tommy is standing telling his wife that she never knew what love was till she met him and why does she have to be like that, talking about leaving him and shit? You keep going that way and you won’t ever know how to keep a man, bitch.

  2. Ebony Edwards-Ellis Says:

    I really enjoyed this story. The voice of this story belongs to a young gay black male. He is obviously intelligent, ambitious, and, given his love of children, sensitive. However, he seems to struggle with inarticulateness. That I feel, accounts for his obsession with words.

    Overt homophobia is partly to blame for this voicelessness; I notice that he never responds to the hurtful insults that are hurled at him.

    I also thought it was interesting that he compared love to a pie.

  3. Farrah Benoit Says:

    This was a great story. It is about a young man, who, in conformity with society’s ideal heterosexual lifesyle is gay and embraces it. As in today’s society, however, the sexual preference of this character Lorrie is repressed as if it were a taboo. What had my mind wandering in the story, although mentioned in the story, was the age of Lorrie with respect to how he was portrayed. In one instant, the responsibility of watching a firends infant baby was bestowed upon him. Yet, in another instant, his mother sat at a table with him reviewing vocabulary words because it was unexpected of him to take on that responsibility on his own. It ultimately become clear when his sexual identity, which is clearly accepted by him, plays a role in what he thinks and how he feels toward Rakeem.

  4. Mina Batool Says:

    It was a nice story. Confusing at first as the narrator was talking. The way it is written it makes you want to know more but it gives you the information slowly. For example, about Lorrie, as story goes along in each part you find one new information about his character. The way people act around him and the things they say gave out the setting. The tremendous amount of names however did confuse me at times that I couldn’t get a picture of all of them in my head.
    Lorrie’s character is he’s Black, homosexual, and living around the 1970s or 80s from the AIDS epidemic and the presence of open racism. Also his outlook on life seems different than of others. He seems content with things most people won’t be but towards the end he does realize he does want more. He wants Rakeem, he loves to be loved but the love with Rakeem is a different kind as he says, the unsure and which he believes won’t always last. He seems determined to make his mom proud. In general even people always want more. He is also very caring and loves kids. Rakeem on other hand who is also homosexual seems to have different views on life than Lorrie, he doesn’t have as much love for his family and studying as Lorrie does. He also seems like someone who wouldn’t let people insult him to his face. It was really sad to see how people were so insensitive towards Lorrie though, even Rakeem at one point.
    It was a very interesting way of writing, the way this story is written. I haven’t read stories of this style before.

  5. Antony Klugman Says:

    Great piece, it really drew me in. The narrative is so starkly matter of fact in the way it presents all the complexities and banalities that are part of this poor kids day.
    I loved how it managed to let us in to the pain, defiance, love, lust, and all the other jumbled emotions that are going through Lorrie’s head, while not being mawkish, or preaching to us. It just felt real, and that to me is what makes a good story.

  6. Duchard Louis Says:

    “Proper Library” is a captivating story about a young gay black boy who is stuck in a society that does not accept him.
    I think Lawrence Lincoln Jefferson Adams, or simply “Lorie”, as people call him, is a boy with a lot of courage because he accepts to live in a society where almost everybody hates him. Although everything he is very tolerant towards other people. He easily gets along with Layla, a woman that everybody rejects because she has AIDS. Lorie also loves kids. He loves her sisters and brothers as if he was their mother. He even takes care of other children like they were his own. He is also very intelligent, and he seems unfair that the people are holding him back.
    I think the reason Lorie is suffering is because he does want to stand up for himself. There is no way to explain why the people at his school keep holding him back and why Mr. Samuel was laughing at him.

  7. Faith Nwodo Says:

    This story was quite interesting, while reading I actually thought the narrator was a female ( due to the fact that the narrator braided hair and the name sounded feminine), reading further i realized that it was a young male exploring his sexuallity.He is also displayed has a caring and affectionate boy towards his family and friends.He showed some signs of his sexuality when he had some thoughts about sitting on the lap of his teacher.I believe he is in love with rakeem and it seems rakeem is into other things and does not notice the narrators affection. Lorrie is in a situation whereby he has to choose between his relationship with Rakeem or school. He also is a boy working towards a bright future with the help of his mother. I kind of find something strange with the fact that he is taking Math 1 and he is teaching his younger ones Math 4.

  8. Alan Liu Says:

    Good story, in the begining I got confused. I was confused about how old lorrie was and was he a girl or a boy. As i kept on reading i relized that he was a boy and it is about him exploring his sexuallity.

  9. Rachel Shupe Says:

    This story is so beautiful. It takes on themes that could easily fall into being trite, and tells them through this incredible voice that injects humor and humanity. The voice enables the author to use fresh phrases without the reader even realizing it, because these beautiful quiet phrases are surrounded by loud, ignorant woices. For example, “worry sandwich”, “He (Rakeem) was what you would call a magnet”, “glows with…drinking up an oasis when you are in the desert for so long”, “his ear was more delicious than math 4” “Now repeat that one hundred times in one minute and that’s how I am feeling.” “…bite into your ear so that it tingles like the bell that rips me in and out of your class”. These are well written and poetic, as opposed to the loud, ignorant voices mentioned above:
    “Click. Lazy Ass negroes, you better not be specting me to cook y’all breakfast when you do get up!” (etc)
    “What you learning all that shit for?…Is you a complete asshole?”

    Lorrie repeatedly talks about lap sitting. I think that he realizes that are times when you can simply be, and all is well, and you are happy. For him this is lap sitting- he is comfortable, loved, safe, whole. He is scared that these times might hold the possibility of lasting.

    Also interesting is that Lorrie seems to be treated as a part of the women in his home, yet he doesn’t share their characteristics. He is quiet, loves children, is patient and smart. The other women are loud, hate children, and are mostly ignorant.

  10. leba cohen Says:

    this was definately an interesting story. to be honest i was a bit confused with parts of it…i didn’t quiet get what was going on. i found it interesting that the author, a male/boy compared love to a pie, when my whole other essay was saying how love is not a pie. a lot of focus was put on him passing the city wide test in the begining of the story. im going to read it again so i can understand it a bit better…overall it was good.

  11. leah mohammed Says:

    I enjoyed this story alot. There was a lot of characters being introduced into the story that it started to confuse me, but while i kept reading on, they all fell in place. I think Lorrie is a strong person, who is determined to make his mother proud and keep his word. He stands up to many of the other kids when they make fun of him because he is gay, he stil holds together! Rakeem is his so called “lover” but he is not good for him, and he realizes this, and makes up his mind to not see him. I thought Layla was a funny character, not that having AIDS is funny, but just by the way she talked made me laugh. I also see Lula (his sister) having problems with her husband. Lorrie also loves the kids, because they are the only ones who don’t make fun of him for being gay. I thought it was an interesting story.

  12. John Chen Says:

    The voices in the story shifts without much of a warning (physically). All the shifting are done in the context and not by indentations or paragraphs.


    “I’m supposed to be in Math 4, but the people keep holding me back. I know it’s no real fault of mine. I been teaching the kids Math 4 from a book I took out the Lending Mobile in the schoolyard. The kids can do most of Math 4. They like the way I teach it to them, with real live explanations, not the kind where you are supposed to have everything already in your head and it’s just waiting to come out.”

    “Don’t let them boys bother you now”

    I am taking a guess that everyone naturally came to a conclusion that this sentence was addressed to a female character.

    This sentence did not catch my attention at the very beginning as well. It was not until later that I found out that Lorrie roled as a male character that I took a closer look.

    “All ears are now on me and Mr. D’Angelo. I am beyond feeling but I know he isn’t. And that makes me happy in a way, like today ain’t going to be a complete waste of a day.”

    This part was interesting. I’ve never placed myself into the shoes of a gay person. It felt rather refreshing. Imagine always waiting for a relationship that is negatively looked upon by society day in day out. And just when you thought a spark occurred, it gets quickly put out. This reminds me of a Chinese poetic phrase, I’ll translate it into English. It goes something like this: The higher you fly, the harder you’ll fall.

  13. Onyekachi Ukwu Says:

    This is a good story. The voice in the story is that of a young gay boy, Lorrie. The story is told in the first-person point of view also by Lorrie. I believe that the author used Lorrie’s voice and point of view to help us relate closer with Lorrie, and understand better what it feels like to live in a society where everybody thinks you are abnormal .The story informs us of the discrimination that Lorrie faces as a result of his sexuality. However, it is only through Lorrie’s thoughts and emotions that we feel this as readers. It is Lorrie’s compassionate, kind, and optimistic thoughts that helps the story moves from just a portrayal of a poor black neighborhood. It is funny how Lorrie describes his love as a pie, and the kids being the best part of the pie. Rakeem, his former lover, does not fully understand his love for the kids; his mother and family do not want to hear about his desires for Rakeem. This is an unacceptable topic; when Lorrie says he is going to meet Rakeem, “Ma has got what will be tears on her face because she can’t say no and she can’t ask any questions.” Lorrie’s family relates to him very well, especially his mother, yet she does not like the feeling of Lorrie’s homosexuality.

  14. Rizwan Bakhshi Says:

    This was interesting read. Young, gay boy living in a stereotypical society. I agree with Onyekachi Ukwu that his mother does not like the feeling of Lorrie’s homosexuality and tells him “you are my only son, the only real man I got. I don’t want them boys to get you from me.” Being a mother she knows how he feels and tells him “Don’t let them boys bother you.”

    I was surprised at teachers reaction where he laughs at Lorrie with other students and makes fun of him by saying “Then he says, Class, don’t mess with the only girl we got in here!”

  15. Nancy Yi Says:

    Lorrie narrates as we follow him through this day of school. His encounters with the people in his life and his narration really bring us into this world. Each of the many characters in the story reveal another facet of his surroundings and his life.

    I was also confused to whether Lorrie was a boy or girl, as her mother told him to not let the boys bother him, and gave him a knife and said, “If that boy puts his thing on you, cut it off.”

  16. Garbra Morris Says:

    “Proper Library” was a interesting story. In the the begining of the story the voice is not clear as to whether it was a male or female. ” My ma pats her hands on my schoolbag, which is red like a girl’s”. This is where you get the first indacation as to the voice being a boy. However in the story the reader comes to find out the the voice is in fact a boy who is a homosexual. Lorrie seems comfortable with is sexuality , it is just the people and the society who is not comfortable with him being gay.

  17. Paule Seide Says:

    Lorrie is a young, probanly in his teen, black homosexual boy. Based on the other characters, he seems a bit slow. And we also learn that he hs been repeatinf the same grade because he cannot pass the math 4. The character is obsessed with “order”for example he says that his aunt Estine, with her clicking heels likes to disturb him when he is lying in bed thinking thing in order. That kind of sentence doesn’t say much but then later, he says ” Things got to be in place. There got to be order if you gonna keep on moving, and Ma knows that deep down. This can construe as a manifestation if not of retardation but a form of mental or social impairment. Lorrie is a brave character because he continues to go to school even when teased. His learning of words is a way for the mom to help him feel normal but you can see that no matter how much the character is trying to move towards the future ( going to school, teaching the math 4, learning all the vocabulary) he is stagnant and everybody else is moving forward.

  18. Michael Shernon Says:

    “Proper Library” is a story which is a vivid work in which new values become emergent from the internal and external approval of old values within an individual and societal perspective respectively. Sexuality, a homosexual one in this case, is generally considered taboo at large but through literature such as this one, the topic gains ground on which to stand one. This story is unique in that it gives us a sexually gay identity within a sexually straight society. Any deviation from the norm such as the one detailed in “Proper Library” deserves an open mind to read.

  19. Angelina Petrova Says:

    this story was really interesting to read. it is told by a homosexual boy who lives in a society where his sexuality is not accepted. he goes through sufferings and verbal abuse every day and the only thing he tells himself is to “keep moving”. he feels safe at home, where his mother will always understand him, and where he can take care of his siblings. he has a good heart and throughout the whole story he always helps somebody. it is very painful to read and to realize how people can be so cruel when all this kid wants to do is to survive in this terrible conditions and to be somewhat happy within his sexual orientation.

  20. Rachel Shupe Says:

    I think it’s really interesting that one thing that everyone said is that they thought he was a girl when they started reading (I didn’t have that experience because I read a few of the replies before the story). For something that seems to be such a big deal that his classmates and even teachers ridicule him, it made me wonder why the author chose not to state it. It seems to be maybe that Lorrie is so comfortable with it (his homosexuality) that it’s not a part of his internal dialogue that we are hearing, but other people’s reactions are unavoidable and painful anyway.

  21. Patrick Pierre Says:

    This story was great to me. It gave me a look into gay life and what it is to truly grow up poor. Lorrie is forced to go through a lot of thing that most men face but in a different way. This reading made feel closer to impoverished people and forced me to take a closer look at myself and how I talk to people no matter what kind of a day I am having.

    Response to Angelina Petrova
    I agree completely with Angelina where she say how unfortunate it is that people could be so cruel.

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