Jeffery Massey,Sr. English 717- Dr. N. Mack 9/26/00 Re: Folklore Tale #1 BIRDS OF A FEATHER “Ricky was smart as a whip and could talk the bark off a tree,” Grandma used to say on those lazy summer days back in the late 1980’s. Often, she sat with her fragile 5’1” 70 year old frame curled up in my recently dead grandfather’s old recliner. Near the front room’s big window, she would stare out onto the hazy grey concrete of our Chicago South Side ghetto street and tell about the fate which befell one of our family’s legends. She’d speak of my cousin Ricky Wilburn’s unfortunate death some 15 odd years before. She did this especially on those Sundays when Rose, her brother’s daughter, would make regular visits. Uncle Robert was Dear’s Alzheimer-stricken brother. Rose was a registered nurse who was fighting terminal leukemia. We all loved her dearly but grandma Dear and ma loved her most for her loyalty to family and her courage. When Rose came by, Ma and Dear would gather we kids around to say hi and embark on wistful tales of family lore from her Dunbar side of our clan. Uncle Robert and she were the only two siblings left. At times talk turned to Ricky whenever she’d see groups of my neighborhood friends or local gang-bangers drinking under the street light outside. Anita, Rose’s sister, was Ricky’s mother whom we all knew had become a fanatical Jehovah’s witness after his death. “Ya know Rosie, Anita was too hard on the boy. She just wouldn’t listen to his problems and gave him too long a leash to roam,” she’d belt out while brushing her Indian-thick silvery mane. The aroma of hot Sara Lee coffee cake and the traditional Sunday pot roast smothered in carrots danced throughout our worn but clean brick three flat home. The TV buzzed with details and scores from Dear’s ever-present White Sox ball games. “I know Aunt Jeff,” Rose would reply. “Ricky only wanted to bullshit his way around like those punks out there, but he’d always stop in and talk to me about why he couldn’t talk to Anita about his feelin so low,” she said. “And Anita made him feel guilty about his drinkin, his carousin with the girls and his always bein in trouble with the law. Hell she put him out twice on the street before he was 17. Then she sent him to that damned job corps. Didn’t do him a bit of good.” “That’s right Ma,” said my mother who would grit her teeth. Ma always kept a burning cigarette hanging from her lips. Right before the long ash would drop into her never forgotten glass or bottle of Pepsi-Cola, she’d snatch it out of her mouth and icily flick it into an ash tray. No one ever messed with our clan’s right to drink Pepsi and all the family’s new babies had drink it as soon as they were weaned off milk. “No wonder,” dear spat out, “a boy without a father around would feel he had to protect his family from those Blackstone Ranger-boys by joinin em. He was still tryin to get some respect from her too. But she just gave up on em.” “She should’ve listened to him more Aunt Jeff,” said Rose. Sometimes the pop-pop-pop of gunfire or screeching police sirens would interrupt her tale. But she’d never flinch an inch except when the time came for me to go hang out on the street just beyond her front-row window seat. She knew the boys out there would be coming for me to join them. She and I silently prepared ourselves for the latest round of arguments over why I should keep my ass in the house. “Skip,” she’d say to me without moving her glance from the dusty window “I know it was hard on ya when you came home from high school and found out Ricky had blown his brains out. He was just like an older brother you never had and neither of you really knew your fathers. But that suicide note Ricky wrote just tore poor Anita up. I hope you learned somethin.” I had learned alright. “Look Dear, somebody has gotta be out there to make sure we can walk up and down the street Besides, I can’t stay here cooped-up with a troupe of women, cacklin about how much safer the world would be if only you females could tame us all.” “Watch your mouth boy,” Dear growled. “I aint so old that your mouth won’t get your ass in trouble.” Ma gave me that look which never failed to turn my blood into ice. No matter what the men in my family had to say, the final word was always femine. With all in the room eyes upon me, I remembered instantly the rain-soaked walk home from school that day. I recalled vividly the painful details of how my friends from the hood came running up to me with fear and sympathy mixed in their eyes to tell me my idol was dead. I visualized the .32 caliber pistol that Ricky often would sneak over to my room from his house the next block over in an effort to elude the probable police search of his room. He’d often pop at invading gang-bangers who’d threaten us or our block. Rick was a legend to we boys because he kept the thugs from killing us. They feared him more than we feared them. He taught me how to drink, get along with girls, fight, and dance. He helped me usher in my passage into manhood on those unforgiving streets. Grandma Dear knew it and loved him for it in a way. But she didn’t want me to follow suit. I’d begun to grow distant from my own mother and just like Ricky, I was the oldest. “He didn’t die for two weeks. Those hospital visits cut into Skip like a hot blade thru soft bread,” she said trembling. “I’ll make it Ma Dear,” I grumbled with my head hanging low. “We’ll all make it Aunt Jeff,” said Rose “just like Skip and I tell Daddy Robert when we see him at the V.A. hospital. You gonna stop in and see him when you get to work Skip?” “Oh yeah, cause Dear asked me to take care of him while I’m working there. I have to take care of all of us now.” When the stories would end, my friends on the street would stop by. We’d go out under the street light for a night of cold beer and cheap wine drinking, I’d often look up into the house through that big window and wonder. As always, Nancy Wilson melodies blared out from the second floor apartment where Ma schooled me in the virtues of jazz. I’d ask myself what tales Ma and Ma Dear were telling my kids and younger brother about me. I downed another 40 ounce beer and thought of Ricky. I’d think about those old eyes of Dear’s staring at me and wishing I’d stuck to drinking Pepsi.