All adults lie. They tell us kids to always tell the truth, but they can’t tell the true themselves.
Don’t believe me? Check this out.
Last July Fourth, I was at a cookout with some people Sancha knew from her old job at Dietz & Watson. It was getting late and almost all the food was gone. Folks still hung around because there was still plenty of booze left. And while they was getting lit, talk turned from Sancha’s old boss there and the way he just up and died to a topic that seemed impossible to me, like they all was trying to figure out a riddle or some myth. Talk went something like this: there were times when a black man looked so much like a white man that white people mistook him for one of them. They all agreed that a black man can’t never catch a break in this world, and how the kind of black man in the riddle was a lucky son of a bitch. Like that black man hit the lottery or something. Well, somewhere along the line, Miss Frida, one of Sancha’s oldest friends, piped in about how my daddy was supposed to be that kind of a black man.
I’d never met my daddy, so this was big news to me. Because it was night time and because Sancha told me never to get messed up in adult conversation, no one noticed that I was standing close by, listening. But right after the cookout, on the way home in Reggie’s car, I told Sancha about what I’d heard and how I’d kill to be that kind of man. I thought that if white people considered him one of them, then my daddy must be some kind of superhero.
Sancha reached back from the front seat and slapped me.
“Don’t you ever let me catch you saying shit like that again. Your daddy weren’t no superhero.” Sancha was my momma, a name I never called her. “I told you, boy. Not everything adults say is true. And if you think something’s true, you better verify it.”
Not ever knowing my daddy or where he was or how to find him made anything about him hard to verify. And if anybody knew who he was, it had to be Sancha. But she never talked about him and any questions I had about him always went unanswered.
Sancha, me, her baby’s live-in boyfriend Reggie and my newborn, half-sister Kay headed out to some cemetery in the suburbs for a funeral. We went out to pay our respects to Sancha’s old boss and his family. She said that they’d been real close. But when she got fired from Dietz & Watson, Sancha and me ended up living in Section 8 housing because we’d didn’t have any money. Later on, she met Reggie, a SEPTA transit bus driver and a guy who made some good money. For a guy in his late twenties, a couple of years younger than Sancha, Sancha said it was hard to believe that Reggie didn’t already have any kids of his own. Well, just before Kay was born, Sancha made all of us move to Germantown, a section of Philly Reggie called the land of neo-hippies, middleclass intellectuals and socialists. Sancha claimed that only smart people lived there, and being around smart people would be good for me. So, anyway, the four of us pulled up to the suburban cemetery in Reggie’s shiny chrome-hubcapped hoopdie looking like the city Negros we truly were.
“You actually showed up,” a white woman said to Sancha as we headed up the brick walkway. A tree with short gray hair, the woman towered over all of us. Dressed all in black, she looked like Death, only missing the hood. She pointed a bony finger at me. “And this one must be Leon.”
“Hello, Vivian,” Sancha said.
Sancha had put on her good voice that day. And when she put on her good voice and good manners, I knew that she was scared of something. She stood up straight as a stop sign and cleaned up her street English.
“This is my boyfriend Reggie. He’s carrying our daughter Kay. And this is Deon. His name is Deon.” Sancha said to me, “Deon, this is Vivian. Her husband was my boss.”
The woman reached out a walking stick for an arm. “I’m Mrs. Anderson. You can call me Mrs. Anderson.”
From Mrs. Anderson’s tone, I knew she wasn’t fooling.
Neither Sancha, Reggie, me or Kay ever went to church. Sancha didn’t go for that, and even though Reggie grew up down south and went to church there, he let it go once he moved up north. So we rarely dressed up all that much. Sancha had Kay in a polka dotted dress and she wore a black skirt with a dark blue sweater shirt. Reggie wore what he called his black, dead people’s funeral family wedding suit. I had on my good black pants and a white shirt and a clip-on red bowtie. Reggie gave me the once over and asked if I was going parking cars.
“Listen to me, Deon,” he said before we left for the cemetery. “We gotta get you a black suit. A black suit and a white shirt will take you far. Good for all occasions. A black suit and a white shirt go with any color tie. And always wear a jacket and tie, little man. People’ll think you somebody important.”
I always trusted Reggie and his advice.
“Well, you’re too late. Casket’s already closed and in the ground,” Mrs. Anderson said. Then she snorted. “Funny. Those were the first words I heard Nathan ever say about you. ‘Sancha’s late.’”
“I’m here. Right?” Sancha said. “I’m right here and I’m not going nowhere until all this is over.”
“Yes,” Mrs. Anderson said. Her tone suddenly turned from sarcastic to sad. “Yes you are. Well, let’s go inside. The lawyer’s almost ready.”
The brick walkway led right up to a stone house. It looked just like one of the houses in Germantown. I learned in school that Germantown not only was the site of a big Revolutionary War battle, but that it was also its own town before the City of Philly grew north and incorporated it. Miss Williams, my history teacher, told us that. She used the word “incorporated” for how Philly swallowed up lots of small towns like Germantown and nearby Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill.
“You know, Deon. Being incorporated is the same as hooking up with a new family,” Reggie told me after I told him about the battle and stuff. “You and your momma, me and Kay, now we’re all incorporated.”
The opposite of Sancha, Reggie grew up in a big family down south, but moved up north because he said he was getting nowhere living where he was. So he got a job driving transit buses. One day he was substituting for some other driver, “grinding out some overtime” is how he called it, and that’s when he met Sancha. He saw her and fell for her right away. She said she didn’t fall over so easy because she told me that she didn’t trust men. The men she’d met never stayed around long. So Reggie seemed no different, at first. But even with the longer Reggie stuck around, I don’t think Sancha ever got used to him being around. Since it was always just her and me, getting incorporated was complicated.
“You know, Deon, if you ever get hitched or shack up with some chick like my people do down south,” Reggie said, “you commit yourself to something bigger. Like when your momma’s boss married Mrs. Anderson and became a part of her family. Like the way me and Kay is now with you and Sancha.”
At home, me and Reggie would stand out by his car when he wanted to catch a smoke or two. Out there, we talked about everything from girls to music to the 76ers, with the agreement that everything we said stayed between us.
“I know having me and Kay around has changed things for your momma. Like us moving into a bigger place in Germantown and all,” Reggie said. “And you know why she did that, little man?”
The problem with staying out of adult conversations was that I never understood what adults were talking about. So I often used another piece of advice that Reggie had given to me: tell adults whatever they want to hear. Like I’d never tell Reggie or Sancha how much I missed living in Section 8 housing. There were lots more kids like me there.
I shook my head in answer to Reggie’s question.
“Your momma wants better for you. Seeing how there’s more money now for you and her cause she hooked up with me, she wants you to live someplace better. And whatever chance she gets to make sure you get something better, she gonna take it.”
Inside the house a bunch of people sat around and talked quietly, like when a substitute teacher kept an eye on my class. Everybody was on folding chairs, keeping their eyes on a man in a dark blue pin-striped suit sitting behind a big desk. I guessed he was the lawyer Mrs. Anderson talked about. He looked at some papers and, every once in a while, took notes. He had on a nicer suit than Reggie’s, which made him look real important. Sancha found us some seats in the back of the room. And while Sancha stared off toward nothing in particular, Reggie sat Kay on his lap and played with her. For a guy who’d never had any kids, Reggie seemed like he’d always been a daddy.
A woman in front of us turned around.
“Are you a friend of Nathan’s or Vivian’s?” she asked Sancha.
Sancha continued to use her good voice. “I worked with Nathan at Dietz & Watson. The meat packing plant. We worked first shift together. He was my boss.”
As soon as we sat down, I spent all my time watching Mrs. Anderson. She couldn’t seem to stay in one place for long. She bounced from seat to seat like she was a pinball hitting off the bumpers. She talked to this person and that person, but not for too long. She walked up just as the woman in front of us turned around to talk to Sancha.
“Yes, Brenda,” Mrs. Anderson said. “Sancha and Nathan became very close. He even told me that she moved around a lot when she worked beneath him, and she tried a number of new positions while under his supervision.”
Reggie put a free hand on Sancha’s shoulder, holding tight, like he was stopping her from throwing down. Back in Section 8, I watched Sancha beat up a woman once.
“But as soon as Sancha’s shift got changed and Nathan no longer managed her, the other manager let her go because of poor performance.” After saying this, Mrs. Anderson moved on.
“If your son’s hungry, there’s some refreshments in the hallway.” The woman sitting in front of us acted nice. “Are you hungry, young man?”
I waited for Sancha’s permission. I saw the food table earlier and really wanted to take something off of it, but with Sancha hyped up and all, I left everything alone.
“You want something, Deon?” Sancha asked. I nodded. “Okay.”
“Reggie,” I said. He was still playing with Kay. “You want something?”
Whenever he went out for cigarettes, Reggie’d either take me along or buy me a pack of Tastykakes. When he got back, we’d hang out by his car and he’d catch a few smokes while I wolfed down the snack before Sancha caught me.
“I’m good, little man,” he said. “But, hey. Don’t forget to ask your momma.”
I looked at Sancha.
“I’m good,” she said with some huff. She eased up a little. “Thank you, Deon.”
Out at the food table, Mrs. Anderson stood around talking to a shorter guy in a black suit. He also had on a black tie. He made me feel underdressed. And since Mrs. Anderson hadn’t been so nice to Sancha, I thought she’d treat me the same way. So I stared at my shoes as I walked towards the food, thinking that if I didn’t look at Mrs. Anderson, she wouldn’t look at me. Instead, I bumped right into her. The short man had already walked away.
“Where do you go to school, Dean?” Mrs. Anderson asked me.
Because she scared me, I didn’t correct her about my name.
“I’m in eighth grade at Jenks School, ma’am.”
“Jenks? That’s a good public school. Do you like school?”
“Yes, ma’am.” I smiled at her.
Besides telling adults what they want to hear, Reggie also told me to smile when I talked to people. He learned down south that people never really know what’s on your mind when you smiled at them.
“Really? You like school?” Mrs. Anderson asked me. “When my nieces and nephews were your age, they always complained about how much they disliked school.”
“Yes, ma’am. I mean, school’s okay.” I had trouble getting out my words. “I like math and science. But English is hard. I really don’t like to write.”
I found the courage to look at up Mrs. Anderson. She was actually smiling back at me.
“That’s funny. Mr. Anderson used to say the same thing. We were in college together. He majored in Chemistry. I preferred the Humanities,” Mrs. Anderson said. “Nathan always talked about wanting to be the next George Washington Carver and took a job in food engineering. That’s how he met your mother.
“I found it strange that Nathan would admire a Negro so much. Yet I never asked him why. It was just one of those things about him, as I am sure there were some things about me he didn’t try to understand.” She seemed to look at me like she knew me. “It wasn’t until later that I found out why.”
This was the first conversation I could remember where an adult wasn’t so focused on telling me, Deon do this. Deon, don’t do that.
“Nathan worked hard and gave me a good life,” she said. “My family cherished him. We miss him very much. My own mother said that he was her favorite son-in-law.”
“Do your kids like school, Mrs. Anderson?”
It was like she came out of a trance. “Oh, no. Nathan and I didn’t have any children. Thankfully.”
All the adults I knew, which was pretty much Sancha’s friends, all had kids. Mrs. Anderson became the first woman I ever met who didn’t have any. I started to feel sorry for her.
Back inside the room, I ate two donuts while the lawyer read out a list of things that Mr. Anderson wanted to give away now that he was dead. The lawyer would say the word “to” and then the name of someone and then what Mr. Anderson gave them. Like, “To Samuel Rogers, I leave the 1972 Lincoln Continental, a car that I know he always loved.”
But when it came to the last thing to be given away, my conversation with Mrs. Anderson taught me a huge lesson: that she could smile in my face, but that she was just like other adults: a liar. The last thing the lawyer read was this: “To my son, I leave $150,000 towards his education. Whatever monies are not spent after he finishes college or university shall be his to do with as he pleases.” How could Mr. and Mrs. Anderson have a son when she told me that they didn’t have kids? Even some other people whispered that they also didn’t know that Mr. Anderson had a son. Even stranger, Sancha acted all relaxed after the lawyer read what was being given to the son. Her mood changed and she became the happiest I’d seen her all day.
After it was all over, Sancha, Reggie, Kay and me went out to the spot where Mr. Anderson’s casket was. Sancha stared down into the hole.
“Deon,” Reggie said. “Come on, little man. Let’s give your momma a few minutes to herself.”
We walked towards his car.
“Beautiful day, ain’t it?” he said. “Makes you feel good about being dressed up all nice. Your momma said we should go out to eat after this. Where’d you think you want to go?”
Going out to eat was a big deal. It seemed like money was always tight, so we didn’t even get McDonald’s, takeout or pizza. Whenever we did go out, now that we were incorporated, to me we felt like a family, not like it was when it was just me and Sancha.
“Hey, Reggie. I just wanna say thanks for all the advice.” Reggie looked surprised. “I bet you if I knew my daddy, his advice probably wouldn’t be as good as yours.”
“You think so, little man?” He tripped, but caught himself and Kay. “Thanks, Deon. Nobody’s ever said that to me before. That means a lot, comparing me to your daddy and all.”
“You ever met my daddy?” I’d always wondered.
“Not face to face,” Reggie said, almost like he was swimming in a sappy Coca-Cola commercial moment. “Came close to seeing him once, though. So did you.”
I stopped. Not Reggie too. “You’re lying.”
He reached out and took hold of my shoulder, just like he did when he held Sancha down. “Deon, in all the time you known me, have I ever lied to you?”
C.H. Coleman currently lives in southwestern Vermont and serves as an admission officer for a small private school. C.H.’s poetry, short stories and articles have appeared online in PiF, Ducts, Poetry Flyer and in print in Takoma Voice, Uno Mas, Washington, DC’s City Paper and The Lynn (MA) Evening Item and currently appear in The Drabble: Shortness of Breadth, formercactus (Issue 12, October 2018), Flash Fiction Magazine (December 2) and, most recently, in the Adelaide Literary Review.