Chapter Five: Times of Change

Everything changes. Nothing stays the same. Our senses and limited perception sometimes deceive us into thinking that the world and everything in it is solid, stable and abiding. The steel table I'm writing this on seems solid enough, and so do the concrete walls and iron bars securing me in my cell, but it's all inexorably eroding as the particles that make everything up race at high velocities, smash together, and then cancel each other out. From as far back as the 6th century B.C.E, Siddhartha Gautama recognized that "decay is inherent in all compound matter." The Greek mystical philosopher Heraclitus (c. 540-480 B.C.E) agreed. "Everything flows, is in constant flux and movement, nothing is abiding….we cannot step into the same river twice."  This is so because, when I step into a river for the second time, neither I nor the river are the same. Everything changes, and nothing stays the same.  Yet we desperately cling to the forms of this world as if they're impervious to change, only to have them torn away from us, along with our hearts.

            Child psychologists say that a stable environment, including lasting friendships and strong role models, is crucial to healthy development for a kid. Through the first fifteen years of my life I became quite intimate with change and instability, particularly once the 90's rolled around. Sometimes the changes were welcomed, like when my dad came home from prison or when we moved into a better place; other times it was heart-wrenching, leaving friends behind, moving in the middle of the night, being thrust into the unknown.

            Right after I completed the 4th grade at Kieburger Elementary, all of the family working for the offshore oil company across the street from the Lazy Acres trailer park were laid off. By then everyone seemed sick of Aransas Pass. It was a dead-end town with limited job opportunities. Cousin Chris and her family had moved to Corpus Christi, where her husband Mike landed a good job. Marcy's family packed up and followed her lifelong friend Dianne to Vidor, a country town in East Texas. Even my best friend Joe Poore and his grandparents left town, leaving me bored and dejected.

            By now, Uncle Ricky was out of jail and back with Aunt Lema. Uncle Ricky and Aunt Lema convened with my dad and came up with a plan. Using an alias, Uncle Ricky rented a U-Haul-truck, which we loaded down with our stuff, and we all headed north to look for work and a place to settle down.

            It took a couple of days to pack and get everything in order. One of our last minute tasks was to return the VCR movies and video games to the rental store down the street. My dad had bought me a Nintendo the previous Christmas, but owning the games was outside of our budget back then, so I was relegated to renting them when we could afford it. My brother drove my mom and I to drop everything off and I pestered mom along the way. "C' mon, Mom! Let me rent a couple of games to take with us!"

            "No, Bobby Lynn!" She snapped. "We ain't comin' back. The shit's in my name and I ain't goin' to jail for no swingin' dick!"

            "They won't send nobody to jail over 2 games!" I reasoned. "Besides, your credit sucks, and it's under yours and Dad's names!"

            We went back and forth all the way there. As usual she caved, and I got my way! I searched furiously through the shelves and selected a fighting game and "10 Yard Fight," a football game I loved playing with my dad. I knew he wouldn't give me much shit if I brought that game home, and so those were the two games that moved with us.

San Antonio, Texas-Indian Motel

Summer of 1990

With no particular destination in mind we hit the road. Uncle Ricky and my brother drove the U-Haul. Aunt Lema rode with me and my parents in our white Ford Ltd car. My sense of adventure was engaged as we left Aransas Pass behind for someplace unknown. I had many good memories in South Texas, but they were outweighed by the bad ones and I was ready for a fresh start. I daydreamed as I stared out the window, wondered where I'd go to school next fall, what my new friends would be like, what our new place would look like. Would we live in a city like Houston or another small, boring town like Aransas Pass? I was hoping for the former. I believed that whatever was in store for us would be better than what we'd left behind.

            We stopped in San Antonio and rented a motel room for a couple of weeks. Uncle Ricky and Aunt Lema spoke highly of the city, saying the men would easily find jobs there, that it'd be a good place for me to go to school. I entered the office with Dad and Ricky to rent the room and we were greeted by the owners, a man and woman from India. The room was dim, strange music poured in from another room, and a pungent odor clung to the place, making me cringe. I was intrigued by the dot on the woman's forehead, but none of my family knew the significance. In the privacy of our room they joked about the "sand nigger owners." I laughed because they did, not really getting it, but not wanting to be left out.

            For years Aunt Lema and Ricky passed hot checks, usually under aliases, as a hustle. Not only was the room rented with a bad check, the entire trip was illegal. Every night Aunt Lema, Ricky and my dad went to grocery and department stores and passed hot checks. Our room stayed stocked with food, and the U-Haul was gradually loaded with soft drinks, canned goods and household appliances. Most of it was pawned off or sold to a fence Ricky knew in San Antonio. So while they said it was imperative that they find jobs, there wasn't that much pressure on them.

            Aunt Lema was incredibly obese and asthmatic, so she rarely left the comfort of an air conditioned room while the sun was out. All of the years I knew her, she slept late and lounged around in her pajamas, chain smoking Kool cigarettes, watching soap operas and movies and cooking all day. You don't get her size without knowing how to cook! Ricky was a Mexican and he boasted that Aunt Lema was a better cook than any Mexican woman he ever met, even his own momma! She was also very charismatic and humorous. She sometimes called me over to her to tell me jokes or poke fun at people. I loved her and enjoyed hanging out with her and my mom when we all lived together. She could not stand the smell of marijuana, though, and she made us go outside to get high.

            There was a swimming pool at the motel, between the office building and rooms. My mom warned me to stay out of it. The water was murky, dark green and reeked. A thick layer of dark green algae covered the concrete, lily pads and grass floated along the surface. But it was so hot outside and I wanted to go swimming so badly that I decided to take my chances. After all, hadn't I swam in worse waters?

            I tentatively tested the water by running my foot through it. I sat at the edge of the pool and kicked my legs knee-deep. It felt thick and grimy. I finally built enough courage to jump in. I pinched my nose and sank into the water for a second, tried swimming with one arm, then shot back to the surface. I felt nauseated and climbed out quickly.

            I ran to our room, anxious to get in the shower and scrub myself clean. "Oh my god, Robert!" My mother cried when she saw me. "What did you do to your hair, boy?"

            "Nothing. Why?"

            "Go look in the mirror."

            I hurried to the bathroom mirror. My hair was light green! It took a couple of weeks to wash the green out. In the meantime, I was the butt of everyone’s jokes.

Austin, Texas - Another Dirt Motel

            Summer of 1990

Ultimately, San Antonio didn't work out for us. Ricky had family further north in Austin and thought there would be a better chance of finding work there, so we hit the road again. My memory of San Antonio is vague because I rarely left our motel, but Austin left an indelible impression on my ten year old mind. The sparkling skyscrapers in downtown, pristine office buildings and shopping malls along the freeways, the beautiful rotunda capitol building at the end of 6th Street, where the freaky, tattooed and pierced people with colored mohawks hung out at night. Hot college girls in tight shorts and tank tops walked the sidewalks, rich kids in sports cars cruised the boulevards and sharply dressed business people were everywhere. There were smooth, white concrete surfaces all over the city--a skater's haven! Everything in the city looked new and clean, but of course we found the most hideous and run-down motel to rent from. We pulled off of a shiny asphalt road onto an uneven gravel driveway. Dingy-yellowish rooms flanked us. A chained dog barked at a rooster atop the back fence. Home, sweet home!

            Steven landed a job washing dishes at a restaurant, while Ricky and my dad looked for something better. Each afternoon they returned looking defeated. My dad genuinely wanted to do the right thing and find a steady job to provide for his family. He often said he was tired of using a pistol to make money, that he finally realized he couldn't beat the system that way.

            To cheer him up one day I asked my dad if he wanted to play a little 10 Yard Fight. He loved that game because it allowed him to utilize his knowledge of football by giving him options of different schemes and formations to select from, on both offense and defense, prior to each play. He did well when he played it by himself, competing against the program, but he NEVER beat me. Not that I knew the game of football better--I certainly did not—it was just that I had a knack for beating video games.  I discovered a glitch in the program that enabled me to score every time I had the ball on offense and stymie my opponent's scoring drives on defense. I tried to teach him the tricks, but he didn't catch on. He'd get so pissed during my merciless beat-downs that he'd start manhandling the controller and shouting at the screen! I only laughed at him and showed him up with a victory song and dance every time I scored. My mom got mad at me for it, told me to let him win sometime, but I never did.

            One time Dad snapped after I stopped him on downs. He shot out of his chair and snatched the game out of the Nintendo, ran to the front door and yanked it open, then chucked the game across the parking lot! He turned to me with his tongue clenched between his teeth. "You get your goddamn ass out of here before I beat you to death, boy!"

            He scared the shit out of me. I went to find my game. I couldn't believe he threw it out! My fear turned into anger as I searched between automobiles. How could he be such a sore loser? It's only a game, I thought. I found the circuit beard without the casing. After examining it I wondered if it might still work. I waited for my father to leave the room before inserting the game into the console. It worked! He later found me playing it and laughed in disbelief. At first I was nervous when he entered the room, but he put his arm around me and apologized for acting crazy. I decided that he was just frustrated because he couldn't find a job.

Eddie and Debbie's Apartments-Austin

Summer of 1990

After a few weeks in Austin, and the only steady source of income being Steven's meager dish-washing check, we all moved in with Ricky’s brother Eddie and chick Debbie at their apartment. Ricky is about ten years older than his brother, but he and Eddie closely resemble each other with slim builds, curved noses and curly black hair. Ricky's love for country and Tex Mex music distinguished him from Eddie, who was a metalhead and ran with the likes of my cousin John in his younger years. While their musical preferences differed, they shared the same taste in women. Debbie was a younger version of Aunt Lema: white, obese and a helluva cook! We joked that Ricky and Eddie HAD to be on top during sex!

            Part of the agreement in staying with Eddie and Debbie was to keep the cupboards stocked. That was not a problem with Aunt Lema and Ricky around! It seemed like every night they'd hit the grocery stores, checks in hand. It was summertime and I liked staying up late with Aunt Lema, Ricky and Debbie watching TV. Aunt Lema would call me over and wrap her arm around me and ask me what I was craving to eat? I'd tell her, we'd all pile in the car to go get it and then return with a trunk full of groceries. One thing's for certain--I never went hungry with Aunt Lema around!

An Easy Mark

Eddie and Debbie lived on a long boulevard of apartment complexes. There were a couple of swimming pools in their complex that I swam in a lot while we were there, but there weren't any kids my age living there so I was usually alone. After a few days of canvassing the place I grew bored and decided to check out the other apartment complexes and search for someone to hang out with.

            The boulevard was separated by a median with small trees, trimmed shrubs, concrete fountains and rest benches. The further I walked the more luxurious the complexes became. Some were gated with signs saying, "No Trespassers Allowed!" Those never deterred me. I met lots of kids of various ages and backgrounds that summer, swam in their pools, rode their skateboards and bikes, played their games, ate out of their refrigerators, and I had a blast running from one apartment building to the other.

            One afternoon I ran into some black kids wearing backpacks. They were on a bench in the median when I walked up. One dude had a Nintendo cartridge in his hand, and he was telling the others about it. Being the video game lover that I am, I joined their conversation. The name of the game in question was "Contra" and they were arguing about the code to get 99 free men. None of them knew the exact code, so I told them. "It's simple: up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, A, B, B, A, select, start---BAM! 99 free men!"

They pulled out paper and pens and wrote it down. One kid about my age asked me if I had any games of my own. We exchanged titles and he offered me a sweet deal: my three games for five of his! I quickly agreed, and we set up a rendezvous for later that afternoon. I ran home to get my games.

            With the games he wanted in my hand, I waited for him at the agreed upon location: the entrance to an apartment building. He was late. I waited for almost an hour. Just as I was about to give up and go home I saw him crossing the street, headed my way. "You got the games?" He asked.

            "Yeah." I produced them.

            His eyes lit up and he smiled. "Cool! Ok, I'm a go get mines and drop these off at the crib. Wait here and I'll be back with yours."

            "Okay, but . . . can't I come with you?"

            "Naw, Homie. My T-Jones ain't cool with me lettin' people in da crib. Just chill here. I gotcha!"

            He got me alright. I let him disappear around the corner with my games. After about twenty minutes I grew apprehensive and went looking for him. He wasn't anywhere to be found. I asked some kids if they knew him, gave them a description. They didn't think he lived there. For days I walked the boulevard hoping to find the little motherfucker. I never did. I'd been had. I felt so stupid, so naïve.  I felt like an idiot for just giving my games away.

Chicks Win Every Time

While looking for the thief I met a kid about a year younger than me named James. James was short and stocky with dirty blond hair and he lived in the nicest complex on the strip. It was a place I'd been ran out of before. James and I hit it off immediately. He invited me to his apartment to meet his mom, a blonde hippy chick who stayed stoned all day. These were my kind of people. We hung out in his room, playing Nintendo, watching TV, listening to metal. He had a huge aquarium that stretched half the length of his room. I liked to space out on it after getting high.

            When we weren't hanging out at his place, James and I hit the swimming pool. It was huge. The small pool up front was elevated and water flowed into the lower larger section of the pool. There were two diving boards and fold out chairs for sunbathers. We took turns doing different dives off the high-dive, always trying to one-up each other. Like my brother and I did years before, James and I played the game where you dive for loose change, with a few new twists to it.

            For about a month James and I got along great. Then a group of girls showed up at the pool, wearing bathing suits and giggling incessantly. I'm a natural show-off. As soon as the chicks arrived I became highly competitive with James, showcasing my full repertoire of swimming skills. One of the girls, a cute brown headed chick close to my age, named Jessica, liked me. I noticed her smiles, the way she cut her eyes at me, how she perked up and clapped when I beat James at something. When her friends wanted to leave the pool, Jessica stayed. They argued with her before they left, but she wasn't going anywhere. That made me pretty happy.

            At that point, all I wanted to do was hang out at the pool with Jessica. Over the next few days we talked to her, swam with her, spent all day down by the pool with her. James got jealous because Jessica clearly had a crush on me. He repeatedly tried to get me to come up to his room to play games, enticing me with promises of smoking his mom's pot and munching out of his refrigerator. I rejected him. He got angry and started getting ugly. He teased, "Robert and Jessica sitting in the tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G…."

            "What, are you five?" I laughed at him. "Grow up, Fat Boy!"

            "Yeah," Jessica chimed in. "Grow up already. Why don't you just go play with yourself?" We laughed even harder. James threw a tantrum. He demanded that I leave the apartments. He said I was only allowed in the complex because I was his guest. We only mocked him further and he ran off, red-faced.

            Shortly thereafter a security guard showed up with James and asked me my name and where I lived. I wasn't allowed on the premises without accompanying a resident. I looked at Jessica but she stayed silent. I took that to mean that she didn't want her parents knowing she invited a boy to swim with her. So I left. It was all for the best.  My time in Austin was limited anyway.

C' Mon, You're Driving

Things in Austin weren't shaping up the way we'd hoped. My dad found work in construction, but it was a temporary job. After it was completed he got with Ricky, and they decided to drive down to Corpus Christi for a couple of weeks to job hunt. I got to go with them.

            We stayed at Chris' house on the south side of Corpus. Chucky had just dropped out of high school, and his mother was on him constantly about getting a job. She promised that he would be out on the street if he didn't come up with something soon. It was an empty threat, and everyone knew it. Chucky was as immature as ever, rolling his eyes at her and then winking at me. "Stop your bitching, Mom! I'm going out right now to find a job. I'll take little Robert with me."

            We walked down to a convenience store and played video games. I thought Chucky was spoiled rotten. His parents bought him expensive clothes. His room was decked out with a new TV, VCR, stereo system and a Nintendo with over twenty games. He took it all for granted.

            Aunt Lema's youngest daughter Carrol lived with her two kids, Savannah and Crystal, at her boyfriend's dad's trailer about five miles away from Chris. They were about fifteen deep in a 3-bedroom trailer. They exemplified white trash: small kids running around barefoot in the mud, screaming at the top of their lungs; bags of crushed cans lined along the front porch; a broken down Chevy truck on cinder blocks; country music blaring out of speakers positioned in windows; the smell of marijuana and alcohol from the driveway; a group of burnt-out bikers and rednecks carrying on at a table in the front yard. We fit right in.

            My dad, Ricky, Chucky and I showed up to say hello to Carrol and her girls one day. Everyone was thrilled to see us and soon a party kicked off. (If the party ever really ended with these people? They probably found any reason a good reason to celebrate!) Ricky used his handy check book to buy a couple cases of beer and food to barbecue. While most of the adults lounged around outside drinking, smoking and grilling, I watched Beverly Hills Cop in the livingroom with a group of kids and an older woman who was their grandma, I think.

            I fell asleep on the couch after eating. A little while later a cacophony of curses and shouting woke me up. I ran to the front door and saw Uncle Ricky pulling my father away from Carrol's stepfather. They'd gotten into a drunken argument, and my father felt disrespected. Suddenly, my father jerked free of Ricky, reached into his pocket and flipped open his Buck knife. "Who's goddamned side are you on, Meskin?!"

            Ricky raised his hands into the air and backed up. "Now, Sam. You're drunk and paranoid. Put the knife up, Man."

            "You watch it or I'll cut your motherfuckin' heart out." My father told Ricky, who retreated even further.

            "Goddammit, Uncle Sam!" Carrol shouted from the porch. "You always gotta pull a fuckin' knife! I ain't havin' it in front of my babies! Leave! Now!"

            My father, falling down drunk, stared at Carrol briefly, nodded and walked towards the car. He saw me in the yard and called me over. He opened the driver's side door and leaned against the car a moment to steady himself. He cursed Ricky under his breath and said we were leaving. I was concerned. "You ain't in no shape to drive, Dad."

            He thought about that a second before saying, "You're right. C'mon, you're driving."

            My father reached into his pocket and handed me the keys. I got behind the wheel and he was in the passenger's seat. I was shaking with excitement and fear. I adjusted the seat as high and as far forward as it would go and still could barely see over the dash board. After a couple of deep breaths, I cranked the engine and put it in reverse. Somehow I managed to get us to a grocery store a few miles away. I parked and told my father I was scared and needed a second to collect myself. He laughed, leaned over and hugged me, commended me on a job well done and switched places with me. We made it back to Chris' in one piece.

            Over the next couple of days he patched things up with Ricky. They soon realized that there wasn't any future for us in Corpus Christi, and the three of us left in the middle of the night.

James Terry's House-Cloverleaf

Late Summer of 1990

We returned to Austin for a few days. Steven had been fired from his job, and with nothing else on the horizon Dad thought it was best to head over to Houston. Aunt Lema and Ricky stayed in Austin with Eddie and Debbie.

            We were welcomed by James Terry and his wife Sheryl.  They said we could stay with them on Eagle Pass in Cloverleaf until we could get on our feet. James Terry was still running his tree service, which had prospered for years in Houston. His success was mostly because he was a master tree-climber, one of Houston's best, and had a great record of not damaging homes and property during a job. When we moved in James taught my brother and Mike, who'd already been living there with Tammie and their kids, all the tricks of the trade. They practiced climbing the pines and oaks in James' yard. They learned how to shoot up a tree in spurs, wear a safety belt properly and tie a variety of complex knots used for maneuvering in a tree and safely bringing it down, piece-by-piece. Climbing trees is extremely dangerous, particularly 150+ foot pines and rotten oaks that crumble away with every stab of a spur. More often than not, these trees hover over homes, threatening them with their dead limbs. You've gotta remove the tree without incurring any property damage or hurting yourself. This is why a good climber is paid twice as much as a ground hand, and it’s also why my brother was determined to master the art of climbing.

            In time by brother's tree-climbing skills surpassed James'. I marveled at how proficient he was at "running up a tall tree" and meticulously bringing it down without incident. One of the most thrilling and dangerous jobs in tree removal is topping out a tall pine tree. The climber shimmies up the tree with a small chainsaw, removing the limbs as he goes, leaving about a 15-20 foot top. Imagine the strong wind up there, swaying the tree and climber back and forth. A rope is tied to the top and the ground hands are pulling on it, directing it where they hope it'll land. The climber positions himself about 10 feet under the rope and cuts his wedge. As he gets ready to cut the back side and top the pine he yells, "Go, Go, GOOO!!" and the ground hands give it their all as the top comes crashing down. Once the top starts its descent the remaining pole and climber swings violently back and forth about 15 feet in either direction, and the climber holds on for dear life! I've watched my brother perform this to perfection countless times. He called it "riding the bull."

            James and Sheryl had three kids. Ray-Ray was about seven years old when we lived with them.  Leona was five, and Jamie was four. After the men left for work, Ray-Ray and I practiced climbing trees ourselves. We could easily climb the oaks, but the pines were intimidating. My skinny ten year old legs barely fit into the spurs. Ray-Ray couldn't get into them at all. One day, I managed to climb about forty feet and grab the first limb. I looked down and was paralyzed by fear. As sweat beaded up over my body and face, I held a death grip on the tree. Ray-Ray laughed at me and called me a chicken. He said I could climb down if I climbed up. I tried to step my way back down and managed a few feet, but I was fatigued from the climb up, stabbing the spurs into the tree, and standing up there for so long. I didn't have the strength to stab my way back sown. Finally, I wrapped my arms and legs around the pole and slid down about three feet at a time, completely ruining my clothes and scratching my legs and body up. As soon as I caught my breath I ran after Ray-Ray and roughed him up for laughing at me!

            Ray-Ray was like my little brother. When school started that fall we both attended Northshore Elementary together.  I was in 5th grade, and he was in 2nd grade. Several years before, Ray-Ray pulled a pot of boiling water off the stove and burned his face and body badly. He had terrible scars from it all over. They made him a target at Northshore Elementary with some of the bullies. I watched him get shoved into the grass on the playground one day by a bigger boy, and it ran me hot. So I took it upon myself to toughen him up. We used to watch old Bruce Lee movies and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles together, so naturally we thought of ourselves as ninjas! I was the sansei, and he my student. Every day we practiced kicks, roundhouses, punches and tripping moves. He gained a tremendous amount of confidence in a short period of time and was determined not to let anyone push him around anymore.

            After dark one evening we were out in the front yard play-fighting when three men walked past our place into the depths of Cloverleaf. My father, James, Mike, Steven and James' brother David were on the front porch, relaxing after a long day's work. I sensed movement and looked down the street where the three men were brawling. I shouted to the porch, "Those dudes are fighting!"

            The men all cleared the porch and ran down the street to the action. Ray-Ray and I followed but kept our distance. It was so dark that I couldn't see what all was going on, but they were all fighting. Moments later it was over. They picked a guy up off the ground and carried him back to our front porch. The stranger had been beaten badly. James sat him down on a chair as Sheryl gave him a rag. Then he told his story. "I met those boys down at Freeport Ice House. They invited me to their place to buy a quarter bag of weed, and they said it was only a short walk away. We get down here on Eagle Pass and as soon as we passed the lights they turn on me, jump me and steal my wallet. They seen you guys coming and ran off. Then you all show up and beat the crap out of me some more!"

            Everyone apologized to the man, made light of it by joking with him and offering him a beer, which he accepted gratefully. James fired up a joint and passed it to him. "Man," James began, "we thought you boys were startin' shit, didn't really know what was happening, but I ain't havin' it on my block, in front of my house." James apparently felt guilty because he gave the dude a quarter sack of pot for free and they later drove him home. Before he left the man had a serious look as he said, "One thing I learned for sure tonight: I will never walk down Eagle Pass at night again!” That brought on the laughter again.

The streets of Cloverleaf have always been rough.

A Glimpse at Eternity

My Mom called me into the bedroom before school one morning. She'd been crying and was holding my dad, who stared at me somberly. Mom motioned me to join them and broke the news. Grandma Johnson died the previous night. I'd just woken up so it took a moment to sink in. Although there weren't any tears in his eyes, I could tell my dad was suffering. It confused me because he never spoke kindly of his mother. He used to make jokes about her, like how she loved her dog more than him because she gave the dog and everyone else but him a gift at Christmas. I held resentment towards Grandma Johnson for not helping us out when Dad was in prison. I hadn't forgotten her hissing at me during church years before, either. Her passing didn't sadden me in the least. The only thing I felt was relief because I knew I'd be out of school for the funeral.

            That afternoon we were greeted by Uncles Dewey and Bill, along with Aunt Lema, at Grandma Johnson's apartment on the north side of Houston in Spring-Cypress. Throughout the day and night more family members arrived, some I'd never even met, to mourn and support each other. When Chris' family showed up I followed Chucky to the back patio to sneak drags off his cigarette. Nancy's girls, Brandy and Michelle, joined us, along with Cousin Carrol. Michelle, who was about 17 at the time and a couple of years older than her sister, wasn't at all happy to be there. "This fucking sucks! No one even liked that old cunt. She was selfish and mean and hated us all."

            "Don't you let your grandma [Lema] hear you talk like that," Carrol warned Michelle. "For some reason she loved that old hag. Be nice. We'll only be here a few days."

            Aunt Lema was near hysteria when we first got there. My father sat with her all afternoon and through everything that followed.

            The next day we all went to the funeral home to view the body and pay our respects. Brother Nash embraced my dad and Lema at the door, as if they were family. Small groups of three or four walked up to the casket to see Grandma Johnson. I waited with Carrol, Brandy and Michelle for our turn. As they complained and gossiped, my eyes were glued to the casket. I'd never been to a funeral home or seen a dead body in real life before. As we stepped close I grew apprehensive. Would she look mangled and grotesque? I didn't really know what to expect.

            I'm not sure if the others saw what I saw when I looked into the casket. Grandma Johnson wore a dark blue blouse, her grey hair was in curls, and she had make-up on. She looked angry and bitter, just as I'd remembered her in life. Were my perceptions influenced by my negative thoughts and feelings for her, the few bad experiences with her, combined with the enmity radiating from my cousins? Probably. I didn't understand that then, though.

            In the few moments that I looked at her corpse, I wondered about her soul. Was she in heaven like Brother Nash said? He described streets of gold and singing angels, a river of milk and honey and no more pain and sorrow. Grandma Johnson seemed too mean for heaven. Yet my dad and Lema clearly loved her, so perhaps there was something good about her.

            My reverie was broken when Michelle whispered to Carrol, "Is it just me or are you suddenly turned on?"

            "I'm horny as fuck!" They smiled at each other. "I can't wait to get me some later."

            "Fuck you, Bitch!" Michelle slapped Carrol playfully on the back. "It's not fair that my man isn't here and yours is! Care to share?" They giggled together and we walked away.

Spring-Cypress Apartments

Early Fall of 1990

Grandma Johnson's apartments were in the middle of the affluent and developing Spring-Cypress community. The brick buildings were ornamented with varnished oak-siding and connected by sparkling white sidewalks. Each apartment had a back patio, most of which were decorated with ivies and various plants. They had four swimming pools, two washaterias and a gym (members only, I discovered). There was a wooden fence around three quarters of the apartments, but the side we parked on was open to a small cypress forest. After the funeral, Dewey, who'd been living with Grandma when she died, asked us to move in with him. Aunt Lema and Uncle Ricky were also invited, but there was plenty of room with 3 bedrooms.

            Chucky stayed with us for about ten days after the funeral. His mom had been constantly riding him about not working so he stayed in Houston and got a job with Uncle Dewey at the truck stop. Dewey was the head cook/manager of the restaurant linked to a truck stop on I-45 North, between Spring and The Woodlands. He got both Steven and Chucky jobs. Chucky didn't realize, at first, that Dewey was only being kind to him because he was attracted to him! As soon as he figured it out he blew up on him and quit his job, then took the first bus back down to Corpus Christi. Before he left he told me, "Aunt Dewey doesn't know who he's fucking with! I'll kill that faggot!"

            Before he left, Chucky taught me how to steal sodas from the vending machines. We were down at the pool closest to the coke machines and I asked him for fifty cents to buy one. "Why spend money when they're free?" He asked. He said his arm was too big, but my long, skinny arms would slip perfectly into the dispenser and I could easily pry cans loose. I was able to pull this trick off for at least a couple of years before my arm grew too big.

            Once again, there weren't many kids my age living in our apartments. Most of the tenets were old and Dewey constantly had to admonish me for making too much noise and disturbing them. I did meet a geeky boy my age with super thick glasses. He didn't like being outside, I learned. I tried to get his help building a clubhouse in the woods and he would have none of it. "I'd rather read in my room."

            "Read?!" I was mortified. "You mean, like, books?"

            "Well, yeah. Don't you read books? I love books."

            "Only if I have to! Damn sure not for fun! C'mon, man. There's gotta be something fun you like doing?"

            "I have a computer with games."

            Bingo! He invited me up to his room where we played a role playing game - similar to Dungeons-n' Dragons-on his personal computer. The kid was a complete dork. During the game he talked science and challenged me to a spell! No wonder he didn't have any friends. His mom was thrilled that I hung out with him. She brought us baked goodies and glasses of milk every time I showed up, and I always admired her tight body on the way out of his room. Everything was cool until she caught me smoking a cigarette in their bathroom. She made me leave. At least she didn't tell on me. If my dad would've found out I was smoking cigarettes back then he would've busted my ass!

Making Adjustments

Moving to Spring-Cypress meant changing schools, something I had to do with alarming regularity throughout the 5th grade. At times it wasn't easy adjusting to new curriculum, leaving friends behind and making new ones. At Spring-Cypress Elementary I felt like a total outsider. There were a lot of preppy rich kids with expensive clothes and shoes. I caught a lot of dirty looks in my worn-out Rustler jeans and Chuck Taylor's. I felt very self-conscious.

            In the classroom they were well ahead of where I'd left off at Northshore. With the help of my nice (and pretty) teacher I soon caught up with the rest of the class. As I began to match scores with the smartest kids in the class I made a couple of friends, but this only worked to alienate me further from the snobs. Some people you just can't please.

            At recess, and in gym class, I exerted my physical prowess, again establishing myself as the fastest kid in school. My grit and determination during games won the admiration of some and secured me as one of the top three picks in contests. It also incited a few kids' animosity. There was a redheaded boy who stayed neck and neck with me in most competitions. Somehow we always ended up on opposing teams, battling each other. He won some; I won some. I had respect for his skills and complimented him a couple of times. He simply brushed me off and remained standoffish.

Things heated up between us during a kickball game once. I played short stop and caught a weak pop fly off his foot. I smiled at him as he walked back to the dugout. When it was my turn to kick for my team I shot a base knock beyond his outstretched hands. He pounded the ground in frustration. Later, with my team leading and him representing the tying run at the plate he kicked a fast roller right to me. I slipped and fell as he ran to first base, but quickly regained my footing and launched the ball at him. I hit him in the legs and knocked him down.

Kids were laughing at him as I pumped my fist in the air, celebrating getting him out. The next thing I knew he was charging me, wrestling me to the ground. I put him in the headlock and pulled his hair before the coach could separate us. We were sent to the office for fighting.

            To make matters worse the redheaded kid's ex-girlfriend liked me. I used to walk alone around the basketball court at lunch recess until she joined me one afternoon. She had dark brown hair, a smidgen of freckles and a cute smile. She wanted to know why I was walking alone. I guess she didn't get the memo that I was the new kid that no one liked. She asked if I had a girlfriend yet. Nope, not me. She said she only asked because one of her "friends" wanted to know. Riiiight! When I asked her which friend she said she promised not to tell. I knew of most of her friends. They were the same ones that turned their noses up to me. When I sat with her at lunch she caught a lot of flak from her peers. They made her feel bad about sitting with the boy that got her (ex) boyfriend in trouble for fighting. She eventually succumbed to the peer pressure, and I got the cold shoulder. Thankfully, I wasn't at Spring-Cypress very long.

James Terry's House Part II-Fall of 1990

Dewey told my dad that the manager was tired of getting complaints about me. The old folks just weren't accustomed to having a noisy kid like me running around. Someone had also reported seeing me stealing from the Coke machines. Rather than risk Dewey being evicted, my dad moved us out. I don't think he had any luck finding work out there anyway, but he knew there was money working with James Terry.

            Our second stint at James Terry's was cut short after just a couple of weeks.  I didn't even re-enroll at Northshore. James, my dad, brother and Mike would go out cutting trees and wouldn't return until after dark most nights. They took turns taking showers. While waiting for James to get out of the shower so one of them could get in, I overheard Steven joking with Mike and my dad about Sheryl. Sheryl was in her mid-twenties back then, had dirty blonde hair and a rockin' body. Steven said, "Oh yeah, I tapped that the other day....she's a dead fuck, though. Just lays there like Emma Bradshaw.”

            They laughed about it then, but Mike later told James what Steven said. James was a strapping young man. He was built similar to Mike and Steven. I was in the room with Dad and Steven when James stormed in. "You fuckin' my ol lady, man?!"

            "No way, man!" Steven said.

            Mike had followed James into the room. He said, "That ain't what you said at the kitchen table!"

            "I was fucking joking, Mike! You've said much worse shit and you know it."      

James was furious. He ripped his shirt off, whipped his long blond hair behind him, pounded his chest and stomped his foot on the floor. "Come on with it! One of you motherfuckers want a piece of me? I'll beat your goddamned asses!"    

            I noticed my father standing off to the side. He reached into his back pocket. Mike saw it too and he lunged at my father, shoved him onto the bed. "Watch his ass! He likes to pull knives! Ain't gonna be none of that shit here, Uncle Sam!"    

Steven took a step towards Mike. James, suddenly the voice of reason, tried to settle them down. He stepped between Steven and Mike. "Everyone just calm the fuck down. You boys are like my blood. I love you motherfuckers and will help you however I can. Anytime, anyplace, and you know it. But there's too many hard dicks living here. If you got someplace to go you need to do that. I'm a jealous motherfucker, and I'd hate to have to kill one of you bastards over my old lady!"

            Still, James remained one of our best friends. Through the years he was always there for us in times of need, and likewise we put him up when he and Sheryl had their problems. But the next day we gathered out things and moved to keep the peace between our families.

Mitchell Rd-Homegrown Style

Late Fall of 1990

After they left Dewey's place, Aunt Lema and Uncle Ricky moved into a two bedroom trailer on the north side of Houston off of Mitchell Road. An older Arab man and his wife owned the lot with several trailers. They didn't care how many people lived in their trailers as long as they got their rent money. We all moved in along with Mike and Tammie and their kids. Time and again, our family proved we knew how to pack it into any trailer!

            Several things stand out about the trailer on Mitchell Road. First, we didn't have hot water. Aunt Lema used to bribe me with food to heat up pots of water on the stove and microwave for her daily bath. She was way too lazy to tote the pots to and fro! Several times, when it got cold outside, I heated up my own bath water, but mostly I took two minute ice cold showers. I found that singing "This Old Man" super-fast, over and over, helped me get through the showers!

            It wasn't until after we moved out that the trailer got hot water. Junior had come up from Aransas Pass to visit his momma and he walked outside to take a look at the water heater. "Here's your problem right here! It's gotta be plugged in!"

            We weren't there over a month, but it was a month of utter boredom. I was a kid, and again, there wasn't anyone close to my age to hang out with. The Arab owner didn't like me meddling around the place either. What to do? I walked up and down Mitchell Road, knocking on doors, asking the residents if they needed any odd work done around their place. For a small fee I would offer my assistance. I cleaned out one guy's gutters for ten bucks. A couple of people let me cut their yards, with their lawnmowers. I spent every cent earned down at the corner store on snacks and arcade games.

            The thing I remember most about the trailer on Mitchell Road is all the homegrown pot! When we first moved in, Dad, Steven and Mike continued to work with James. The problem was that James lived about forty-five minutes away in Cloverleaf. The commute became costly. So they started working with Charles Goss of American Trees out in the Woodlands, a much closer drive. Charles paid his ground hands $35.00 a day and climbers a meager $75.00 per day, whereas James was paying $50/$100 per day. The pay cut didn't sit well with Mike and Steven, so they snuck onto Charles' property late one night and stole a couple of garbage bags of pot plants! I smoked so much homegrown that I got terrible headaches. We smoked joints the size of cigars and barely got a buzz.

Skylane Apartments I-45 South

Winter of 1990 - Spring of 1991

North Shepard Drive stretches far across the north side of Houston. Car dealerships and auto salvage yards are lined up for miles and miles. My dad met Gary Wilborn at Bill Dee's Auto Salvage. They hit it off immediately. Gary was in his sixties then, snow white hair and beard. He was soft-spoken and mild-mannered, but one very savvy businessman. He owned Bill Dee's and a couple of other auto salvages in Houston. He hired my dad on the spot as a delivery driver. I still remember the smile on Dad's face when he pulled into the driveway on Mitchell Road in his small Toyota delivery truck, how happy he was to have landed a good job. The $250 per week starting salary wasn't the greatest, but it was pretty good back in 1990. Especially considering he got to take the delivery truck home and was given gas and lunch money everyday. It was a huge improvement over the $35 a day he made with Charles Goss, who only worked three or four times a week at best. Besides, Gary and my father became friends. Over the next five years Gary helped us many times when we struggled.

            We were soon able to afford our own place again. The Skylane apartments are located right off the feeder on I-45 South. With Gary's help we were able to put down a deposit and a month' rent on a nice two bedroom apartment.

            Steven found a job at another auto salvage yard on North Shepard pulling parts and digging holes in the ground. Cars were artistically buried-front-end first-into the ground as if they'd plunged from the roof of the nearby building into the dirt. With both Steven and Dad working steady jobs, things began looking up for us.

            Dewey couldn't afford the apartment in Spring-Cypress after he lost his job at the truck stop. Dad helped him get a job as a night security guard at Bill Dee's and he moved in with us, splitting the rent and further relieving Dad and Steven's burden. After my father threatened him years before we never again had to worry about Aunt Dewey pulling any sexual stunts with any of us. In fact, we always got along great with him, while we were all still free.

            More help arrived about a month later. My mom and Steven were grocery shopping at the Fiesta supermarket on Airline when they thought the old man digging in the dumpster looked familiar. He should have. It was Grandpa Sutton! After nearly five years of not knowing where he was, if he was dead or alive, we found Grandpa! My dad hadn't seen him since the 1970's. They had a beer together and caught up with each other in our living room. Grandpa looked much older than I remembered him. Living on the streets was wearing on him. Dad insisted that he move in with us. We set him up a bed in the dining room, right next to the Christmas tree. It felt awesome having Grandpa around again. He was a hustler and often brought money home to help Dad out. He'd been living out of his van when Mom and Steven found him. He was just as happy to be reunited with us as we were with him.

In da Ghetto

The Skylane Apartments are on the edge of Acres Home, a crime-ridden and gang-infested ghetto. Dope dealers struck deals on street corners, crack heads and winos drowned their sorrows under underpasses and behind convenience stores, places of business and homes had bars in the windows  and graffiti covered the sides of every building. It was common to hear gunshots and sirens at all hours. Our apartments were relatively safe, though. I was warned to stay on the premise at all times. Of course I never abided by the rules. I always tested my boundaries. During the day, while my dad was at work, I often jumped the fence and ran down to the Chinese store to play games. Or I'd cross the freeway to the Fiesta and go-cart track next to it. If I didn’t have any money to ride the go-carts I'd panhandle at the Mexican table-shops in front of Fiesta. I wasn't deterred when old men in trucks stopped next to me and asked why a pretty little white boy was all by himself. I just hauled ass!

            I was enrolled in a predominantly black school to resume the 5th grade. The differences were immediately apparent. My teacher was Mr. Henry, a gentle giant with charcoal skin and salt-n-pepper hair. He had absolutely zero control over our class. Kids slept during lessons, refused to do assignments and cussed him out with little consequence. He thought that reason would prevail. Instead of getting loud and angry or sending a kid to the principal's office for acting out in class, he would pull you up in a chair next to him and talk to you as if you were his own son or daughter. "Look here now. Do you want to be stuck in this dump the rest of your life? The only way out is an education. Please don't mess your life up. Please let me help you." Very few seemed to listen.

            The curriculum was far behind Cypress'. I breezed through the assignments. Most of the time I sat idly at my desk. As hard as I tried, I never fit in there. Most of those kids were taught that all white people were the source of their problems and, being the only white kid in the class, I could feel some of their anger and resentment. But I liked Mr Henry and tried to help him around the class and with students who had learning disabilities.

            The competition was fierce at recess. Most of the boys were strong, fast and agile. Some had a fluidity of movement unlike anything I'd ever seen. I went from being an elite athlete in my other schools to a middle-of-the-pack contender. I still held my own in most sports, but any victory was hard-fought and truly earned. I lost a whole lot more than I was used to. Nevertheless, I remained an exceptional sprinter. There were only two kids, a set of twins that were clearly faster than me. They had blazing speed and usually finished every race in first and second place, although I beat them a few times. Most of us, though, were happy to place third.

            The biggest difference was the vicious trash talking. Everyone "ranked," or put each other down. "Yo momma is so fat she got her own zip code!" "You so poor you ride yo’ big wheel to Goodwill!" "You so ugly yo’ daddy gotta tie a pork chop to your neck to get da dog to play wit ya!" It was like that all day, every day, and even more so during a game. Once, we were playing basketball and I blocked one of my classmate's shot. I rubbed it in. "Is that all you got? Not in my house you don't!"

            I never saw his fist coming when I returned to class after lunch. He knocked me over a desk and to the floor, jumped on me and pummeled me with a flurry of punches. I tried to fight back, but he had the positioning, the size and strength. Mr. Henry broke us up. The kid was in a rage. "Ho-ass white boy think he bad! I'll beat yo’ ho ass, white boy!"

            "That's why you gotta steal me?!" I screamed back. Blood ran from my mouth, and I felt my face starting to swell. I launched myself at him, but Mr. Henry caught me in mid-flight and held me back. The kid took advantage of me being restrained and slammed his fist in my face again, shutting my eye closed. Mr. Henry yelled at him, told him to go to his desk. I'd had enough. That was the worst beating I'd ever had in my life, at that point.

Pooh Bear

Pooh Bear was a short, black kid my age that lived a couple doors down at the Skylane Apartments. Although we went to the same school, unfortunately he was in a separate class. I met him the day after we moved in, and we became instant friends. We did everything together in the apartments. My parents liked Pooh Bear, let him eat with us and spend the night on weekends. We'd stay up half the night playing games, watching TV, raiding the refrigerator and smoking pot. He did not smoke in front of my parents. I tried to pass him a joint once in their presence, and he shook his head a firm no. His mother was a devout Christian raising her son alone. She was strict with Pooh Bear, who was a good kid for the most part, and he followed her orders fearfully. He didn't want word getting back to her that he was smoking dope. I watched her spank him once so I understood his docility.

            In the field behind our apartments, Pooh and I practiced back flips. I saw him do one off of the short, wooden fence by the sidewalk and was astonished. I asked him to teach me. We practiced on an old mattress under a huge oak tree. "The key," he said, "is not being afraid. Just do it." In no time I could do a back flip on the mattress, but it took about a week to build my confidence to attempt one on grass. After I successfully completed my first one, it was all I wanted to do. I learned to do them off of the fence, benches and card, with a perfect landing every time. At school and before class started, Pooh and I drew a crowd with our acrobatic maneuvers. I loved the attention I got from sprinting into a cartwheel and full-tuck back flip (without hands) on the concrete slab.

            I don't recall what it was behind, but Pooh and I got into an argument one day. We weren't playing with each other. He sat on the concrete slab under the stairs, and I did flips in the grass yard between our apartments. My father and Steven emerged from our apartment and noticed we weren't hanging out together. My father asked, "Why ain't you playin' with your friend?"

            "He ain't my friend no more."

            "Oh yeah?" I could smell alcohol on my father's breath. He reached into his back pocket and removed his Buck knife. He flipped it open and handed it to me. "Then I suggest you take care of your business, boy."

            My hand shook with trepidation as I stared at the knife. I looked up at Pooh Bear. He was watching me closely now. For a brief instant, I allowed my anger over our argument to control me. Wielding the knife head level so he could see it clearly, I took steps towards him, hoping to scare him. It worked. He jumped up and ran home in tears, screaming bloody murder! I suddenly felt guilty for frightening my friend. I handed the knife back to my father. He told me to go inside and deny everything if anyone asks what happened.

            It was several days before Pooh would even speak to me. I caught him coming out of his apartment and told him I was sorry. He shot a stern look at me, crossed his arms in defiance. "Why you do it if you sorry?" I explained I was mad at him over our argument, that I'd never use it, just wanted to scare him. I stuck my hand out and apologized again. He stared at it a moment before relaxing and shaking my hand.

            Later he joked, "We cool and everything, but don't think my black ass is ever comin' to yo’ crib again. Yo’ daddy is one crazy white motherfucker!"

Love Transmissions

Steven lost his job pulling parts and started relieving Dewey as nighttime security guard at Bill Dee's a couple of times per week. The auto salvage yards along North Shepard were susceptible to burglaries late at night. There was a small patch of woods separating them from Acres home, making them an easy target for thieves. A couple of years later, I helped my dad and Steven build a sheet metal fence around Bill Dee's, but back in 1991, when Gary was being burgled several times a month, he needed a security guard to patrol the place at night.

            A couple of times I got to go to work with Steven, help keep him awake through the night. It was perfect bonding time for us. We rode around in a small Toyota, similar to Dad's delivery truck, with a couple of pistols and shotguns. We listened to Z-Rock 106.9 FM, got high and joked the night away. It was a macabre scene late at night, all of the smashed vehicles in which many lost their lives. Gary Wilborn was smart. He knew that there was money in the auto salvage business in Houston, one of the worst cities in America for auto accidents.

            We were parked with the engine idling and heater on because it was colder than a witch's tit in a brass bra outside. The headlights illuminated a rack of transmissions; I rolled us a joint. Steven asked me, "You ever fuck a transmission?"

            "What?" I couldn't help but laugh. "No way, man."

            "You don't know what you're missing." He smiled knowingly at the transmissions.

            "Shut the fuck up!" The mere thought of it had me laughing uncontrollably. I fired the joint up and took a hit, passed it to him.

            "No, really." He tried to suppress a laugh. "See that one there dripping fluid? See that hole in the center? Oh man, it feels so good fucking that wet hole! Go try it, you'll see."

            The absurdity of it gripped me. Had I not been stoned, I wouldn't have thought twice about doing it. It never would've happened!  But I was feeling silly and highly amused so I stepped out into the cold and walked to the transmission rack. I could see my breath it was so cold. I touched the side of the transmission and it was ice cold! Steven rolled his window down and called me a pussy, told me to man up and "Fuck that transmission!" I laughed even harder, called him an idiot, but I said fuck it and pulled my cock out and inserted it into the transmission. The cold metal stung my flesh and I jerked back, sobering a bit. I reached down and found a rag to clean the fluid off, buttoned my pants up, and hurriedly returned to the warmth of the truck.

            Steven was doubled over in amusement. Fucking asshole! He embarrassed me many times over the years by asking me in front of my girlfriends, "How'd you like fucking that transmission?" That's not an easy question to explain, trust me.

Problem Child

There were a few factors involved in us moving from the Skylane. First of all, my father pulled a knife on a black man who lived above us. It was a dispute over a parking spot. My father felt "contested." The black dude pulled a shotgun out of his car once he saw the knife. A few threats were exchanged and they left it at that. Somehow rumor of it got back to the manager and my parents had to field her questions. Right around this time, though, my dad was seriously questioning his judgment to move us into an all black neighborhood. He dropped me off at school one morning and got on the overpass above the school yard. He said he knew he had to move me out of there after being able to spot me clearly from high atop the freeway. I was the only white face in sea of black.

            Ultimately though, I got us evicted. Our apartments were divided into a north and a south side. The office and the majority of the kids at Skylane were on the north side. At first kids could roam about the complex as we pleased. A string of fights and a broken window in one of the north end's apartments, which I was suspected of doing, forced the manager to impose a no tolerance rule: All unsupervised kids had to stay on the side of the complex where they lived.

            A pretty blonde named Misty had just moved into the north side of the complex. Days before the rule was posted, I'd accepted her as my girlfriend. We'd barely spent any time together at all. There was the first date: my brother drove us with several of our friends to the Northline mall arcade. I didn't have any money and my parents weren't coming off any despite my persistent begging. I was beside myself trying to figure something out. My mom finally suggested that I raid the penny bank in her room. Score!

            Or so I thought. There was about $10 in pennies in the bank, but they had to be converted into quarters to use in the arcades. The people at the arcade wanted me to roll the pennies up before they would exchange them! I was incredibly embarrassed and felt awkward asking Misty to help me roll them up. She did it, but probably only because she was too nice to reject me in front of our friends. I felt like such a loser.

            Sometime after the rule went up, I snuck to the north side hoping to talk to Misty. No one was home. On the way back to the south side the manager caught me! That evening we were given a 30-day eviction notice.

            Before we moved Misty broke up with me. She had the hots for a dude named Tracy, one of the "friends" that accompanied us to the mall. After I found out she liked him, I called him Dick Tracy. We fought in the parking lot. He came out on top and I stopped calling him Dick Tracy, to his face!  Point is, I was ready to leave the Skylane apartments by then too.

Butch and Sherry's House-Spring of 1991

Pops Sutton knew a couple in their thirties named Butch and Sherry. They were ex-heroin addicts strung out on Methadone. Butch looked like Jesus with his long dark hair and beard. Sherry was a short brunette with a nice body, but she looked closer to fifty than thirty in the face. They'd had rough lives.

            Butch and Sherry owned two houses on the same lot in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood on Houston's north side. Pops arranged for us to move into the house up front, a nice brick, three bedroom with wooden floors. The place didn't have insulation or central air conditioning and heating. We used electric heaters. We also had to pay all the bills, plus give Butch and Sherry rent, which they promptly took to the Methadone clinic. There was more room for us though because Dewey had moved into an apartment alone just a block away from Bill Dee's, and Grandpa had started living with one of his friends out off East Mount Houston Road.

            Butch asked us to please stay out of one of the rooms at our house until the previous renter could pick up his stuff that was still in there. I went through his stuff, and it wasn't nothing to worry about being stolen, trust me. I happened to be in the front yard when the guy showed up to haul his stuff away. He loaded it into a brand new Camero. I was admiring his ride when a crazy lady screeched to a halt in her car in our driveway. She jumped out with a baseball bat and began screaming at the guy next to his Camero about him cheating on her. He kept his distance as she smashed his windows, one-by-one. I can't say I blame him--she looked ferocious even if she was super-hot in her tight shorts and tank top.

            I used to get stoned and trip out on Butch and Sherry at their place. They'd be high on Methadone, nodding in and out of consciousness, their words slurred and incoherent. I didn't understand half of what they said, but they seemed to comprehend each other well enough. After a while they'd run me off, said I needed to let them have a "grown-up talk." Peeking through their window from the outside, I learned that "grown-up talk" meant having wild and kinky sex.

            Dad had bought me a relatively new BMX bike the previous Christmas. There wasn't much space to ride it at the Skylane, where I was told more than once not to take it out into the neighborhood. Dad said the dope fiends would hurt a kid for his bike and I knew he was right, but in Butch and Sherry's neighborhood I was given free reign to ride to my heart's desire. It was an older area with lots of trees, asphalt roads and fenced in yards. I didn't know anyone yet so I cruised the streets alone, thinking about all sorts of things, enjoying the nice spring weather. There was a small super market on the corner of Aldine Westfield and Parker where Mom sometimes bought groceries. I loved playing their arcades. I liked riding up there and hanging out. They were easy to steal from. I ate my first Whatchamacallit candy bar there, or shall I say behind there. Those things are delicious.

            My parents repeatedly warned me not to leave my bike in the front yard because I tended to discard it in the grass and go straight inside, so every night I parked my bike in the hallway next to our kitchen. One morning I woke up and got ready for school. I loved riding my bike to school and the sense of freedom I got from such responsibility. I looked forward to racing the other kids around the park next to our school after class let out each day. I passed through the hall and went to the bathroom and snapped! I doubled back and my bike wasn't there! I ran to the front door and it wasn't in the front yard either. I remembered that I left it out there the previous night. My bike and been stolen sometime during the night. I was devastated. Unfortunately, being a victim of theft didn't teach me it was wrong to steal. If anything it embittered me and made me want to steal even more.

            I resumed the 5th grade at an elementary off of Parker, between Airline and Aldine Westfield. Ms. Roberts was my teacher. She was blonde and beautiful, the object of my desire. Every morning she told our class about the Persian Gulf War, what our soldiers were facing in the Middle East. I didn't hear half of what she said in her tight jeans. When I told my dad about her he joked, "I buy you books, send you to school, and all you do is eat the teacher!"

            I tried to impress Ms. Roberts with my wit and acumen, but she knew what I was up to and it seemed to exasperate her. Surely I wasn't the first boy she taught with raging hormones. Back then I had a bad habit of saying, "I done did it" "Turn in your homework, Robert." She said. "I done did it." "Did you dust the erasers, Robert?" "I done did it!" She constantly had to tell me that was an improper sentence. She offered a few alternatives, but I kept forgetting them until her patience ran thin. She made me handwrite: I will not say "I done did it" 1,000 times. So much for my impressive acumen, eh?

            At this point, I started feeling very embarrassed by my cheap clothing. In Acres Home we were all poor so it wasn't as noticeable, but those kids dressed sharp at the Parker school. Reebox had just come out with their famous pump-up shoes, and the Air Jordan's with the 23 on the side were the shit. Both shoes cost over $100, far beyond our budget. Still, I asked my dad for a pair of the Reebox pump-ups when it came time to buy me new shoes. "Are you fucking crazy, boy? A hundred dollars for a pair of tennis shoes? We'll get you the $5 special at Wal-Mart and you'll like it."

            Instead, he took me to Academy to shop for shoes. He knew I liked playing sports and wanted to get something decent. My eyes lit up when I saw the new LA Gear pump-ups. They were only $35! I gave my dad my saddest look as I held the shoes in my hands, knowing he wouldn't buy them. He surprised me by telling me to put them in our bag, and he got them for me!

            All of the kids in my class were impressed with my new shoes. No one had even heard of the LA Gear pump-ups. I felt unique and special to have the only pair in school. Then I ran into a rich white kid from another class in the lunch room. He owned the Reebox pump-ups. "What the fuck kinda generic trash are those?" He asked me. "LA Gear? More like La Queer! What a rip off!" I got sent home for busting him in the mouth.

            The first time I ever skipped school was in Ms Roberts' school. My friend Javier lived a couple blocks over and said we could hang out at his place after his mom left for work. As promised, I met him in the woods across the street from school and we waited there. After she left we kicked it in his living room, smoked some pot and listened to Vanilla Ice. A lot of people deny ever liking his music, but all the kids in the Parker school loved Vanilla Ice!

            We were eating cereal on the couch, watching cable TV, when his mom walked through the front door. Apparently, she came home for lunch some days, unbeknownst to Javier because he was usually at school. We were so stoned we never even heard her pull into the driveway. At least she didn't snitch on me. She just told me to go home. I hid out in the woods until school let out.

Ambassador North Apartments-Summer of 1991

Paying for all of the utilities and Butch and Sherry's rent proved to be more than we could handle. They were heartbroken when they found out we were moving away, with their dope money. We packed up and moved about ten miles down Aldine Westfield to the Ambassador North Apartments. With all utilities paid, central A/C and heating, free cable TV and a swimming pool, it was a total upgrade. Besides, Aunt Lema and Ricky shared an apartment there with Carrol and her new boyfriend JR. Dad always preferred living around his sister.

            With just a few weeks left in the school year, I stayed in Ms. Roberts' class. I dreaded each day. I liked staying up late and getting stoned, watching TV and playing games. The no-pot-on-school-nights-rule had long been ignored. I got high when everyone else did and that was just about every night. Consequently, I was becoming lazy, my focus in class and on assignments was diminishing and I was hell to wake up every morning. Mom would nudge me trying to stir me awake, I'd bitch and moan and ask for "five more minutes." Five minutes usually turned into thirty most mornings. I ran late a lot of days. To save time I went to sleep in my school clothes. All I had to do when I woke up was wash my face, brush my teeth, comb my hair, put my shoes on and I was ready to go. I didn't mind the wrinkled clothes. I thought they made me look cool.

            My brother drove me to school those last weeks. He noticed my foul moods and tried to cheer me up. He often had a joint for us, which helped, but I'll never forget the song we made up on those early morning rides. He started it off:

"I don't want to go to work today.

I just wanna stay at home and play.

If I had it my way

I wouldn't go to work today."

Then it was my turn:

"I don't want to go to school today.

I just wanna stay at home and play.

If I had it my way

I wouldn't go to school today!"

            Singing our song put a smile on my face and helped me start my days. Sadly, our bonding moments were few and far between in the years to come.

Bad Boys of Summer

Once I completed the 5th grade I was free to come and go as I pleased, stay up all night or sleep the day away if I wanted, which I oftentimes did. I spent a lot of time hanging out with Carrol and JR at Lema's, watching movies with them, stuffing my face with junk food and listening to them gossip about the family. Aunt Lema enjoyed talking shit about people, spreading rumors, all the while lifting herself up on a pedestal.

            It was then that Aunt Lema and Carrol planted the seed that Robert Sutton, or his son Tommy Lynn, might be my biological father. I rejected that completely. Sam was my dad, and no one could tell me any different. "I don't know," Carrol queried. "Does Uncle Sam have pretty blond hair like yours? Nope. He's got dark hair and everybody knows dark-haired people pass on their dominant genes."

            Aunt Lema added, "And Pops Sutton and Tommy sure were around a lot back then. Why do you think you momma named you after both of them?" They were pissing me off. I smiled back at them. "If that's true then why isn't Carrol fat like you, Aunt Lema?" She didn't think I was very funny.

            There were a lot of kids in my age group at the Ambassador North, enough to play games of football and baseball with in the large field next to the parking lot. Or race bikes the length of the parking lot. We were rough kids, always banging into each other during games, arguing over every play, fighting to settle disagreements. I ruined all of my good clothes that summer, but had a lot of fun doing so.

            I befriended a boy of mixed race named Marcus. Most of the kids there picked on him, mostly because he was different. What they failed to realize was that he had the largest selection of Nintendo games in the apartments! Being one of his friends, I could borrow them whenever I wanted! Not that we were only friends because of his games; he was fun to hang out with, too. The games were just a bonus. A sweet bonus!

            We were picking teams for a game of baseball one day. Being a team captain I selected my teammates, and John, a big redheaded Irish kid, picked his team. Marcus wasn't my first choice because he sucked at baseball and most sports to tell the truth. He was my friend, though, so I selected him kind of early. John thought he was a comedian. "I knew you'd pick the spic. That's why y'all are gonna get destroyed! That little pussy spic boy plays like a sissy!"

            "Stop being a bully, John." I put my finger in his face. "And brush your fucking teeth before you come outside for crying out loud!"

            Everyone except John laughed. He wrestled me to the ground, penned me with his knees and beat the shit out of me. He was bigger, stronger and meaner than I was and I was no match for him. He left me with a black eye, busted lip and bruised ego. Marcus thanked me for standing up for him, but he obviously didn't want any piece of John. I sort of resented him after that for not fighting John, letting me get beat up in his place. I didn't let those ill-feeling prevent me from borrowing his games, though!

            I was eleven going on twelve that summer and my hormones were raging. Down at the swimming pool, where I practically lived, a sixteen year old girl with long, bright blonde hair and well developed curves wore a two piece bikini. She was smoking hot, the inspiration for many of our fantasies. She knew she commanded all of the boy's attention and teased us by slowly applying suntan lotion over her body.

            By then I'd grown a little more confident. I flirted with the hot blonde every chance I got. I could swim at the bottom of the long pool from one end to the other without coming up for air. She seemed interested when I demonstrated for her. When I beat the other boys in swim races, I thought she was impressed. She only giggled when I flexed for her. She said I was just a little boy. I lied and told her I'd had plenty of sex with my ex-girlfriend at my old apartments. I doubt she believed me, but she definitely loved the attention we showered her with.

            She got into the pool one day. As she swam past me I boldly grabbed her butt. She shrieked and lightly smacked me on the head. "Boy, you are BAD! Stop that." I just laughed and touched it again. I said, "You know you like it." And she did. Her feigned anger was belied by her soft giggles. She attempted feeble protests, pushed my hand away the first few times, but finally conceded and let me touch her under the water. She looked around to make sure no one suspected anything. No one did. I caressed her firm bottom, legs and breasts. Curious and excited beyond my wildest imagination, I took it a step further and felt between her legs. My fingers lingered over the thin fabric of her swimsuit. She parted her leg slightly and grabbed my hand, guided it underneath and into her. I felt her body tense up, her breathing increased and she moaned lightly. I tried to withdraw my fingers because I wanted to touch her breasts again, but she quickly pushed me back down there. She was really into it. Some older people came into the pool area, and she pushed me away again. She adjusted her swimsuit, resumed her act and patted my head again. "I told you to swim along, little boy!"

            My cousins Tom and Jerry stayed in touch with me periodically when they left Aransas Pass. They were then living in Vidor, Texas, and called me often to ask questions about Nintendo games. I had a knack for solving games, knew lots of secrets for advanced levels, and I shared them liberally with my cousins. Since it was summertime and they were out of school their mom Marcy agreed to let them spend a couple of weeks with me. Big mistake!

            Marcy was a strict but loving mom. Tom and Jerry had curfews, weren't allowed to smoke anything, and they never swore. They even said their prayers before meals and bed! They were good kids. My mother didn't mind them staying with us because she could count on them to clean up after themselves and help her around the apartment, unlike my other cousins. Jerry actually enjoyed helping my mom with housework.

            After a couple of days of my influence some of those manners began to wear off! Late at night, when the adults went to sleep, they smoked cigarettes and pot with me. It was their first time trying either. They laughed at everything, got the munchies and acted silly with me all night.

            I showed them around the apartments and we did all the normal things kids our age do, but I wanted to show them the big city. We lived about ten blocks from the Northline Mall so I took them to see it. They were nervous during the walk there, looking over their shoulders as if they wanted to return to the safety of the apartments. Their anxiety was replaced with astonishment and uncontained wonder one we arrived, though. We ran through the mall's stores, played games at the arcade and quickly spent the little money we had.

            In those days, Northline Mall's security was almost non-existent. I led my cousins into a department store to a section where no one was around and shoved an action figure in my pants. They followed me out of the store to the restrooms. They were shocked at how easy it was to steal something there. They became emboldened and we returned to the same store, each of us lifting something this time and returning it to our safe spot in the restroom's garbage can. For about a week we stole from the mall and brought it all to my room, hid everything in my closet. We had clothes, video games, fake jewelry and various toys.

            We would've gotten away cleanly, and we did at the mall, but Tom and Jerry tried to take their stolen stuff home with them. Marcy demanded to know where they'd gotten all that stuff. Jerry caved on us and not only told about the stealing but also about smoking as well. They weren't ever allowed to stay with Cousin Robert again!

Palm's Motel

Shortly after we left Aransas Pass, Uncle Wayne purchased the Palm's Motel down there. The buildings were pink and adjoined, forming an L-shape. Uncle Wayne and Junior's family lived in the pink house/office building in the center of the lot. Several of the rooms were occupied by family. Acquiring the motel was one of Uncle Wayne's greatest accomplishments in life. He said he could die peacefully knowing that his kids and grandkids would have something to fall back on when he was gone. Those were portentous words that reverberated through the family just a couple of months later.

            While at the bar in tow,n Uncle Wayne got into an argument with one of the regulars there. Witnesses say he hadn't had much to drink, but he was furious when he stormed out of the bar. He made it to his car and opened the driver's side door, then he collapsed right there on the street and died of a heart attack. He was buried in Corpus Christi, Brother Nash presiding over the services, and most of the family came down to pay their respects.

            Junior took over at the Palm's when his dad died. It didn't take very long for the place to become a den for prostitutes and dope friends. His brothers Mike and Ronnie sold cocaine and meth out of the motel for him, when they weren't out robbing and thieving that is. Just two months after Wayne Senior died, Ronnie was arrested for armed robbery. He remains in the TDCJ as of 2012.

            While we were living at the Ambassador North, Junior made many trips to Houston to score coke. Pops Sutton hooked him up with a dealer on the north side, an old ex con named Bill who ran hookers and sold dope out of his house. Sherry, who'd left Butch, had become one of Bill's girls until Pops intervened and they became romantic. They lived out of his van for over a year.

            On one of his dope runs Junior asked my brother if he wanted to come down to the Palm's and make a little money. Junior said he couldn't trust Mike and Tammie to hold his dope anymore. They were strung out on it and were doing more than they sold. He needed someone he could trust to hold his dope. He wouldn't dare keep it in the office building for fear of being raided and losing the motel. Steven had just lost his job so he agreed and left with Junior.

            Marina was Junior's maid at the Palm's. Junior paid her and gave her and her two kids free room and board. She was in her mid-twenties, had short black hair and was cute. My brother says it was love at first sight. Junior said Steven followed Marina around like a puppy dog while she cleaned rooms until she finally gave him the time of day. Steven moved into her room and kept Junior's dope in her freezer.

            In the privacy of their room, Marina voiced her reservations about living there to my brother. She was frightened by the dope heads that came and went at all hours. She worried that she'd lose her kids in a drug raid if dope was found in her room. Mike and Tammie's kids were recently taken after a raid by the CPS (Children's Protective Services) and placed in foster homes.

            We were all surprised when my brother returned home with Marina and her kids, six year old Christina and four old Christopher, but we fell in love with them in no time. Marina had lived a hard life. She fled from the east coast and her adoptive family when she was sixteen. She made it to California and lived there a few years, met a guy and had Christina. She never went into detail about her life out there, but from all that she did say, I ascertained that she was into drugs and her man was abusive. They ended up moving to Arizona where she had Christopher. He beat her up one night and she left him cold the very next day. Somehow she made her way to Aransas Pass, Texas and the Palm's Motel. She had a shy and reticent disposition that apparently made her a target for abusive men. Her adoptive grandfather, whom she said was one of Motorola's founders, sexually abused her as a kid and teenager until she finally ran away.

            Marina and her kids were fun to hang out with. They all had an amazing sense of humor, in spite of the adversity they'd faced. Christina was a special needs kid with deformed ears that made hearing difficult for her and, consequently, she had trouble speaking. She was such a sweet and happy kid, though. Chris was really shy at first, but he came around soon enough and became my little brother. We played games together like hide and seek, and we laughed and joked constantly.

            My brother was as happy as I'd never known him. All at once he had a family of his own and he worked hard to provide for them. When Christina or Chris called him dad I could tell it stirred his emotions and made him proud. He had a glow about him that wasn't there before, as if his life suddenly had purpose and meaning. We were all happy for him.

A Devil in White

One night after Junior left from making a dope run I found myself in our living room with just Steven and Marina. Junior had left Steven about a gram of cocaine. He was chopping up lines on a mirror on the couch. I'd never done any coke before, or anything other than pot and inhalants and alcohol, but I wanted to. Probably because they were doing it and I didn't want to be left out. Steven refused me when I asked for a line. He said it was bad for me. I countered, "If it's bad for me why are you doing it?"

            "'Cause I'm a grown man, and it's good for me," he laughed. “Dad would kill me if he found out I turned you on to coke."

            "Yeah, Roberto," Marina winked at me. "It's nasty stuff. Not for kids for sure. Trust me, you don't want any of it."

            I was persistent until I got my way. Steven caved and gave me just one line. When he handed me the straw he threatened me, "If Dad EVER finds out about this I'll beat your fucking ass!"

            No way would I tell. I took the straw and sniffed the line, just as I'd seen them do. The burn was slight and my eyes got watery. My heart began to race, mouth got numb and a tingling sensation washed over me. I broke out into a sweat. The euphoric rush lasted about fifteen minutes. I talked non-stop the entire time. Marina suggested I take a shower. I did just that, then tried to relax in the living room as they finished up the rest of the coke. It was nearly two years before I did anymore coke, but I never forgot the rush of that first line.

Green Acres Trailer Park-Greens Road-Late Summer to Fall of 1991

Late one night my father chased a Mexican man around the Ambassador North with his Buck knife. He had been down at Lema's drinking with Ricky, as he was most nights. He was on the way home when he encountered the Mexican in the hallway. The guy somehow disrespected him, and my father went after him, but the man eluded my father.

            I was watching reruns of In Living Color when my father burst through our front door, out of breath and cursing about a "stankin wetback motherfucker." The police were banging on our door twenty minutes later. They arrested my father on the spot.

            I tossed and turned that night, scared and worried that my dad would go back to prison. I was awakened by the sound of Dad's voice coming from the kitchen. He was talking to my mother and brother. I thought I was dreaming at first. Didn't he go to jail last night? Yes he did, but Gary Wilborn bailed him out in the wee hours of the morning. He was arrested under a minor public intoxication charge; nothing serious ever came of it. Well, other than our eviction notice, that is.

            Gary helped us with the money to move into the Green Acres Trailer Park in Greenspoint. It's way out off of Greens Road, between the Hardy Toll Road and Aldine Westfield, an area mostly undeveloped back then. There was a brand new neighborhood with homes in the $100,000's down by the intersection of Greens Road and Aldine Westfield, and there were signs announcing the development of another neighborhood along Greens Road, but we were surrounded by virgin pine forest at the Green Acres. Most of the residents owned their own trailers and had them wheeled into the park. There were a lot of double-wide trailers with fenced yards in the park and brand new vehicles in the driveways. But along the far left part of the park there were about ten older trailers for rent, and we settled into a nice 3 bedroom/2 bath there.

            At first everything felt perfect. My parents took the master bedroom, Steven and his family shared a room and I had my very own room! I set up my stereo system, arranged a small black and white TV set with my Nintendo on a built-in desk so it faced my bed, tacked up posters on the walls and taped a "knock before entering" sign on my door. I enjoyed the freedom and privacy of my room, although Chris and Christina were probably in there more than I was while it was still my room. About a month after we moved in, Mike and Tammie showed up, and Dad made me give them my room.

            I wasn't all that disappointed relinquishing my room to them. Back then I thought Mike was cool. He didn't treat me like a kid. I smoked cigarettes in front of him without fear that he'd tell my dad, he didn't mind if I rode with him and Tammie when they went places (Steven rarely let me go with him and his family; he wanted the quality alone time with them), and I always felt like Mike and I were friends. That's probably because Mike was a kid at heart and in his mind his entire life.

            What really made Mike cool was that he was an aspiring tattoo artist with a tattoo gun. While we were living in the Lazy Acres in Aransas Pass, Mike did some tattoo work on my brother, Junior, Chucky, Joe Poore, and many others. I got a hold of his gun when no one was around once and put a small, crooked cross on my left forearm, a dot on my chest and a weird fish-looking thing on my right wrist. But I wanted something better, and by better I mean bigger!

            I begged my dad at the Green Acres to let Mike put a tattoo on me. Mike had already done some work on Dad and was in the middle of putting roses and banners on my mom's shoulder. My dad said he could. The tattoo Mike gave me is a hideous piece that has induced more laughter and ribbing than anything, but back then you couldn't tell me it wasn't the coolest and baddest tattoo in the world!

            One afternoon I couldn't find Mike and Tammie. Mom said they took a walk through the trailer park. I finally found them in an empty trailer, acting suspicious. Tammie didn't want me knowing what they were doing and became upset with Mike when he opened the kitchen cabinet und pulled out a can of spray paint and empty bread bag. My sister pleaded with me, "Please don't tell daddy, Bubba."

            I promised I wouldn't tell. Mike sprayed gold paint into the bag and inhaled it slowly. He handed the bag to my sister and she took a hit. I wanted some too. Tammie tried to object, but Mike simply "shushed" her and passed the bag to me. The high was similar to inhaling gasoline. I heard the familiar "WAH-WAH-WAH" and reality skipped and distorted. Later that evening, after the high wore off and I was back home, I got a blinding headache and threw up. Mom thought I had the flu. She gave me a warm wash rag and cold busters, and I went to sleep early.

            Mike and Tammie huffed a lot of paint at the Green Acres. They liked staying up all night and sleeping all day. Dad got fed up with Mike's laziness and nonchalance about finding a job and told him and Tammie they had to go. They moved in with Aunt Lema in Cloverleaf. For a little while I had my own room again.

Back in School

My 6th grade year began at Aldine Junior High School. Aldine is renowned for being a good school district with exceptional facilities and above average teachers. Their junior high school had recently been refurbished, and a brand new football stadium was built the year before. My first day of school, I walked down the waxed floors through freshly painted hallways, shaking with excitement. I'd heard all about middle school, how you got to change classes every hour at the ringing bell, take elective classes and have your own locker. I was intrigued with the snack bar and all the good food they sold, but rarely got to eat from it. I'd always been on the free-lunch program and that didn't change at Aldine. There was freedom, independence and added responsibility in middle school, and I loved it.

            When I first selected my electives I listed an art class. I thought it'd be cool to learn to draw like my brother and Mike. Then I met a girl, a pretty brunette in one of my classes, and I had a huge crush on her. She took band class. I asked the school counselor to please change my elective. Reluctantly, he agreed. I had to first prove that I could afford an instrument because the school didn't provide them. My dad came through for me, rented me a saxophone and bought me reeds, which became costly. I could tell he was proud to be able to do this for me, offer me something, an opportunity he didn't get as a kid.

            I practiced everyday, hoping to get good and charm the girl. I learned the basics in no time and could play simple tunes like "Mary Had a Lamb," and the "Itsy-Bitsy Spider." I even talked myself into the seat right next to my heart's desire in band class. When it came time to perform I did so with passion and, I thought, did a great job. My teacher gave me an A.

            It was all to no avail. The day I finally gained the courage to ask her out she rejected me coldly. Up until that point she was super nice to me, talked to me all the time, laughed at my jokes and whispered secrets about other kids to me. Once she realized I liked her on a romantic level she acted like she didn't know me. She told me she liked another boy. Suddenly, my interest in the saxophone took a plunge.

            One of the noticeable and intimidating things about middle school was the size of some of the boys. Obviously, the 8th graders, most of which had reached puberty, looked gigantic to me, but even some of the 6th graders were ripped, athletic and growing facial hair already. I was no longer the dominant force in gym class, one of the school's elite. I still scored mega points during dress-out in gym class because I was the only kid with tattoos!

            At Aldine, I became friends with a 7th grader named Chris. He was big for his age and apparently had already reached puberty because he had a light mustache and lots of acne. We rode the bus together, but I didn't talk to him until we met on the bench in front of the principle's office. We were waiting to see the principle for separate write-ups. I'd gotten into trouble for sleeping in class; he was there for fighting a black kid, who was on a bench out in the hall. Chris was a white kid and was quiet on the bus. Not so much on the bench that day. "These fucking niggers think they can push us whites around. I'll kill that nigger, I swear!"

            Chris got suspended for three days. After his suspension was over he sat next to me on the bus and we cut it up together to and from school everyday. He had lots of problems at school with black kids. He was known for using racial slurs and ostracized by many. On the bus we sat in the back and quietly made racist jokes, imitating black people by smashing our noses down and sticking our lips out, mocking their Ebonics. He absolutely hated black people, dreaded each day at school.

            On the bus ride home one afternoon Chris asked me if I wanted to skip school with him the next day. He said we could intentionally miss the bus the following morning and meet up at the Hardy Toll Road, then walk back to his house. His parents would be gone and we could chill out there and get high until school let out. His mom had a stash of some killer bud, he promised. No way could I pass that up!

            Everything seemed to work out according to plan. We spent the day smoking pot, making cookies and jamming out to Metallica at his place. I walked home after school let out and my mom had a worried look when I stepped inside. "Where the hell have you been all day, boy?"

            "At school," I said innocently.

            "Bullfuckingshit!" Mom screamed at me. "The goddamn school called me earlier wondering where your lying ass was! I've been worried sick all day!"

            I told her everything. She promised not to tell my father, but I was in big trouble at school. My write-ups had been stacking up, there were too many trips to the principle's office for sleeping in class, failure to run in assignments, cursing a teacher out and fighting once. My mom and I sat in the principle's office as he listed my offences. He said, "Skipping school is the final straw, Robert. I should expel you. But I think there's hope for you, unlike that troublemaker you run around with. If your mother will agree and sign the proper paperwork, I'll send you to alternative school."

            Of course she agreed and signed me off to alternative school. She would do anything to keep me in school.

            My father never found out about Drew Middle School, where alternative classes were held. Each morning I had to wake up extra early to catch a special bus to Drew, which was about twenty-five minutes away out on Little York in the heart of Acres Home. Kids from several surrounding districts were sent to Drew as a last resort. We were considered the worst of the worst. Alternative classes were held in an isolated section of Drew, with only one entrance to the rooms and no windows. It felt like being in prison in those classrooms. We weren't allowed to leave until classes were over each day. Contact with the "normal" students at Drew was strictly prohibited.

            There were a few cool things about going to Drew. The teachers were really nice. With only about fifteen kids per class they could easily help us with our assignments. Once we finished our work they let us play board games, talk or even sleep if we wanted. Classes began at 7:00 a.m. and ended at 1:30 p.m., Monday-Friday, a score as far as I was concerned! Our teachers said it was very difficult to get kicked out of Drew. It took three write-ups, but they rarely wrote a kid up. If you did manage to get three write-ups, you were gone, expelled for the year. I managed to stay out of trouble while there. My dad would have killed me if I got expelled from school!

Crowded Again

Junior called my dad one night and asked if he could bring his family up to Houston to live with us. A couple of months before, he’d lost the Palm's Motel. He'd been raided by the drug task force one too many times. Sheriff Linda Thompson gave him an ultimatum: sell the place or she'd make sure it got seized. He bought a shrimp boat, a truck, several horses and a piece of land and a trailer with the money. He thought he'd get into the shrimping business. That didn't pan out for him. He soon had to sell the boat and the horses just to feed his family. Uncle Wayne's dream went down the toilet, and Junior soon had no one in South Texas to turn to. He knew he could turn to Uncle Sam, as always.

My dad gave Junior and Bonnie my bedroom. I moved into Steven and Marina's room. My mom was forced to deal with the chaos and funk that my cousins brought with them, and she wasn't happy about it. She could manage Marina's well-behaved kids easy enough, but "Junior's little demons drive me to drankin' ", she cried.

Junior wanted to use his truck to start a handyman business. He thought he could drive around Houston and do odd jobs for people. Steven, who'd recently been laid off from his mechanic's job, thought Junior's idea was stupid. My brother wanted to start a tree service and use Junior's truck to get it off the ground. Junior liked that idea better. They tore off the tool boxes from the truck and built wooden sides to carry larger loads of trees. They used the money Junior had left to buy a few chainsaws and tree service equipment. The business prospered and became the foundation for Pioneer Trees.

      It wasn't long before the landlord at the Green Acres banged on our door. She wanted to know why we'd taken in an entire family. "Seven people is pushing my limit for a three bedroom,” she told my mother. "Thirteen is insane and unacceptable. Besides, those are the baddest kids I've ever seen! They've gotta go."

      My cousins had been terrorizing the trailer park, fighting with other kids and tearing up their toys. Junior took his bunch to live with his mother in Cloverleaf. We would soon follow them.