The way the story was passed down to me, when I was born I weighed four pounds seven ounces and was addicted to heroin. My mother gave birth in a crackhouse on Bedford, but it wasn’t clear if she went into labor while shooting up or if she just crawled into the first place she could find once her water broke. A junkie ran out and got a cop, and the fiends and chickenheads all cleared out while the ambulance crew tried to muscle in past them. I was in intensive care for the next year. My father visited once. On that day, in the hallway outside my room, he and my mother got into a screaming match that ended with her nearly clawing out his eye with a long fingernail. He said she was lucky he hadn’t brought his gun. Sometime later, a few days or maybe a few weeks, he was arrested for possession of crack and sent upstate for two years. During that time my mother lived with her mother in a walkup on Gates Avenue. My mother claimed to be a model and my grandmother described herself as a beautician. Neither one ever worked as far as anybody could tell, as models or hairdressers or anything. For a few of those years a man named Edwin lived with them. He was killed on Flatbush in a hail of bullets that made the front page of the New York Times.
When I was eighteen months old I weighed eleven pounds, and when I was two years old I weighed fifteen. By the time I was three my weight had crept up to twenty pounds, but only barely. My mother probably only weighed ninety pounds herself, and my grandmother maybe slightly less. It was hard to tell which was older; they both looked like old trees twisted by hard wind and rain. Of the two I was more afraid of my grandmother, whose face and body were gruesome with rage and hate. My mother wasn’t much different, but at times she could laugh like a little girl and show a hint of the beautiful woman she might have been in a different life. At least once before I was three my mother tried to sell me for drug money. The police said it got her about seventy-five dollars. Child Services took me back to my grandmother; my mother rejoined us soon after.
When I was three years old a case worker came into the apartment and found my grandmother passed out in a pool of vomit. My mother was asleep in the bedroom. The house reeked of urine and shit, there were cockroaches everywhere, a loaded gun on the coffee table, no food in the refrigerator, and I sat in a dirty diaper on the floor staring at the television, not having been bathed or changed in days. My leg was tied to the couch with a rope, and nobody wanted to say who had done that or why. Arrests were made and I was put into protective custody. The story made the newspapers and the previous case worker was fired.
My father first heard about my situation from a reporter who called him at home. The next day, or maybe the day after, he showed up at the agency and spoke to my case worker. He told me the story so many times I feel like I was there, as though I can actually remember the sound of his voice rising over the whirring and ringing of printers and telephones and somebody screaming in a closed room.
“Ma’am,” he would have begun, trying to tuck in his insouciant lip and to stand up straight, the slow syllables rolling out in an accent caught midway between the country and the ghetto. I imagine him in a dirty wifebeater and basketball shorts. There were sloppy prison tattoos on his arms and chest, and a scar on his shoulder from an old gunfight. He had a gold tooth and uncombed hair. Perhaps the only positive thing a stranger could say about him was that he was too thin and addled to be really threatening. “Ma’am, I know I’m a bad father. I ain’t educated. I smoke weed. I smoke a little extra too sometimes. I got bad taste in women, know what I’m sayin’? I make bad choices. I been to jail, I got friends who I shouldn’t be friends with, know what I’m sayin’? I’m with a woman now, she got three kids, ain’t none of ’em mine. She do hair, you know? And nails, too. I don’t do nothing. Sometimes I sell a little weed here and there, but nothing big, nahmean, just a little something sometimes. I ain’t got no business being a father. Worst thing I done in my life was hook up with that bitch, you feel me? But that’s my daughter, yo. My flesh and fucking blood. And y’all gonna put her in foster care? I know I ain’t a good father, but foster care? You know what come outta foster care? Shit like me. I come from foster care. I know maybe some people go in there and come out all right, but not nobody I know, you feel what I’m saying? Ma’am, I know you wanna do best for my little girl but this ain’t about you. It ain’t about what you want. Your hands are tied as much as hers are. Maybe you got a rich white family somewhere dyin’ to take a little crackhead and raise her up right, but you probably don’t. I bet you you don’t have somebody like that right now to take her to. It’s gonna be some lady with, like, twenty other foster kids up in her house, and she spending they money on lotto tickets, you feel me? I know you hear this from stupid ass fools every day, but let me take care of my daughter. I can change. I can raise her right. I can try, at least. At least as much as foster care, you feel me? I tell you what. Just let me hold onto her until you find that good family. And when you find somebody better than me, even two percent better, I’ll give her up. Until then I can try to change and raise her up. I’ll get a job. I won’t be bringing all kinds of people up into my house. I know you hear this shit every day. You gonna say I’m too risky, but foster care ain’t no risk, man. She’s gonna get fucked up in foster care. You know this. Let me try.”
He’d always crack up when he told me what the case worker said. She looked at him coldly and said, “Clarence,” and there he’d stop to laugh because nobody had called him Clarence since he was a toddler and somebody on the block decided that he should be called Toons. “Clarence, do you even know her name?” And it was funny because he couldn’t say for certain that he knew it. I was Little Worm to him, always had been. It was a nickname from my mother that had become affectionate in spite of itself.
“Her name is Nina,” he offered with unsubstantiated confidence. “Like Nina Simone.”
Somehow it worked, and Toons took Little Worm to his girlfriend’s apartment on Nostrand Avenue. He went out to buy diapers and his girlfriend stopped him. “Little Worm three years old. Bitch need to be using the potty.” He brought home some jars of baby food. “How much that shit cost? You better take that shit back. She got teeth. Bitch can eat like the rest of us.” He came home with new clothes on little plastic hangers. “None of my kids got new clothes and I got a job. What the fuck you do? There’s six people in this house now who gotta eat, and you gonna spend how much on two dresses? There’s seven days in a week, motherfucker, the fuck she gonna do with just two dresses? You gonna do laundry every day? Take em back and buy a six pack of T-shirts and a loaf of bread, you dumb motherfucker.”
It wasn’t all bad. She grudgingly taught him a lot about taking care of me. It would have been nice for me to eat something formulated by pediatricians to meet children’s unique dietary needs, but a loaf of bread and a pack of bologna cost three dollars and lasted five days. And I might have looked pretty in a little pink dress with a taffeta slip, but plain Hanes T-shirts for boys, two sizes too big, came in a four-dollar six-pack and came down low enough on my legs that I didn’t need pants on in the house. Which is good because I only had three pair and I still wet myself when I was scared, or hungry, or forgot.
“Little Worm needs her hair did,” he said once.
“Her grandmama do hair.”
“Bitch, you do hair.” She threw a plastic ashtray at him and split his lip.
“Who you calling ‘bitch?’ Get the fuck out my house!”
We ended up on the second floor of an old rowhouse on Sterling Place between Washington and Franklin. Whoever was in there before had cut the phone wires before they left and pulled out the light socket in the living room. Somebody had shellacked a page of the Daily News right into the living room floor; the dateline was from 1952. The Franklin Avenue shuttle made the whole house rattle as it wheezed past our window. Toons got a discount on the rent by agreeing to act as the super for that building and four more in the neighborhood. The owner lived in Queens and didn’t like coming to Brooklyn in the dark.
Even with a discount it wasn’t like Toons was making any money. He kept selling weed but was his own best customer. The case worker came by and found him with a baggie on the stoop. He somehow talked his way out of losing me. Maybe it helped that he had a baby monitor clipped to his shorts. He took her inside and showed her my room. I was in proper pajamas that he’d bought that very day, curled up with a real teddy bear on a bed. Toons slept on the couch. There wasn’t much furniture in the house, and most of it was in my room.
“Clarence, you can’t sell dope. Even if it wasn’t illegal, it’s clearly not making you any money. Get a real job.”
“How much am I gonna make at McDonald’s? Minimum wage?”
“Minimum wage is a lot more than you’re making now.”
Toons found a job delivering Chinese food. It actually paid a little better than minimum wage. Even in the ghetto people want to eat Chinese food, but there were no Chinese guys willing to ride a bike through Crown Heights in 1994 to deliver egg rolls. Toons was a valuable asset. He carried the bags of pork fried rice and steamed dumplings in the same duffel bag he’d used to sell weed. He even stalked down the street with the same pusherman slouch, dealing duck sauce to the ghetto.
He hated every minute. “You know why I do this shit?” he asked me. “Smell like fucking mooshoo whatever? You know why?”
I actually thought he wanted an answer and tried to think of one.
“Cause you so fucking cute, Little Worm. Look at this little nose. Is that really your nose? How you breathe through that little thing?” He pawed at my nose and I laughed. “And look at those little teeth. They so little. How you eat with them little teeth? And these little hands. And little feet. You so goddamn cute I can’t help myself. I’ll go to Bed-Stuy and fucking Bushwick with a fucking bag of noodles cause you so damn cute. Come here.” He swiped me off my end of the couch with one arm and I landed in his lap, cocooned in his warmth and the lingering smell of Szechuan Castle, enclosed by his skinny arms and showered in his goofy kisses. He always looked half-asleep and when he smiled he looked like he was about to drift off into heaven.
At least twice he lost me, once at the Fulton Mall when he didn’t realize that I wasn’t following him until he reached the subway, and once on Franklin when he got sick of me whining about something and took off in a hurry, faster than I could keep up, until I couldn’t see him anymore. He went home and waited for me for twenty minutes until he realized I couldn’t find my way back without him; after thinking it over for a few more minutes he set off to find me. At Fulton Mall I just stayed put inside the store until he reappeared. I was five. The day he lost me on Franklin I was six years old, and we were separated for fourteen hours. He lost me around eleven in the morning. When I realized he couldn’t hear me calling him, I stormed off in the other direction, eventually walking to a park in a new neighborhood. When I got scared I wandered back as best as I could. Somebody recognized me at Grand Army Plaza and brought me home at three in the morning.
When I was in the second grade the school I attended was shut by the state, and I was reassigned to a school on a slightly better block. It was too far for me to walk myself. Toons didn’t figure this out for himself. When he enrolled me the secretary looked at my address and asked him how I was going to get to school.
“She can walk,” he said, not understanding.
The conversation took a nose dive after that but after a while he insisted that of course he wasn’t going to let a seven-year-old walk that far, across some busy streets, too, and in a bad neighborhood, all by herself. “The fuck kinda idiot you think I am?”
Taking me to school meant waking up earlier. Up until then he would wake up to make sure I ate and got out on time, but now he had to brush his teeth, have breakfast of his own, and get dressed, which was especially difficult in the winter when getting dressed meant putting on almost everything he owned. I had a coat and gloves and hat, but all he had was a big stack of shirts.
In the afternoon I’d go to the late room and wait for him. He never knew when he would have a break, but he could expect that somewhere between three and four-thirty he could slip away long enough to pick me up and walk me home. At five the school would call Child Services, so if by four-thirty he hadn’t found a natural break he would place an order himself and then deliver it and pick me up on the way. Then I’d get hot Chinese food for dinner to make up for having waited so long.
In the spring he attended a parent-teacher conference for the first time. I waited in the hallway while he spoke to my teacher behind a closed door. When he came out he had an enormous grin on his face, unnaturally broad and alert. We stopped at the first shop on the way home and he bought me a candy bar. The first few bites were delicious, and then I remember looking at him and everything slowly changing. With each block, it seemed, his happiness faded a bit more, so that by the time we were home he was nearly in a state of despair. He stopped talking. He made me dinner and then sat next to me while I did my homework, his head cradled in his hands, gradually dropping down to the table. I wondered what I had done wrong, and eventually was worried enough that I asked him.
He didn’t answer except to say, “Nothing, baby.” He gave me a hug and a kiss on the forehead and told me he needed to go for a walk.
He didn’t go far. I watched him from the living room window. He just paced in front of the building, back and forth. Sometimes he would sit on the stoop, but never for long. Toons always said that he couldn’t sit and think at the same time.
I watched him until I fell asleep at the window. In the morning I woke up in my bed, changed into pajamas and comfortably tucked in. Toons had already made breakfast. He clearly hadn’t slept all night, but he was trying to be cheerful. He sang to me, helped me get dressed, and carried my backpack to school for me.
The story of what he did afterwards came to me from Gail, years later when she felt I was old enough to appreciate it. He left me at the school and went to her office. I got dropped off at seven-thirty; Gail didn’t come to work until nine. He spent that hour and a half in the waiting room, and as soon as she walked in he jumped out of his seat and started talking. She had to take him by the hand and take him into a conference room.
“You gotta help me, Gail. I can’t do this. I can’t fucking do this.”
“Clarence, calm down…”
But the more he talked the more he needed to move, and the more he lost control. She had to force him into a chair and make him breathe before he could continue.
“Her teacher say she need a tutor,” he said.
“And that in class she always asking questions about everything. And when they draw–her teacher just let her sit in the back and draw, she don’t make her come sit with the kids on the rug if she don’t want to.”
Gail was confused. “I get reports from the school, Clarence. Nina is doing fine. She has no behavior issues and no academic problems. She’s a good kid.”
“You don’t understand,” he said. “She ain’t in trouble, not like that. Her teacher–her teacher–” He cleared his throat and took a breath. “She’s gifted. She might be a genius. That’s what her teacher wanted to tell me.”
“That’s a good thing, Clarence.”
“Her teacher say her school can’t teach her. They ain’t got the books, the teachers ain’t got the time, they got no money for extra shit like she need. The teacher brings her own books from home and lets Little Worm read them in the library instead of being in the class. But she say she can’t do no more, that Little Worm need a tutor.”
And then he broke down.
“Miss Gail, I need that rich family. Tell me you found her a family, not two percent better but a hundred–a thousand, ten thousand percent better than me. Because she deserves it, and I got nothing more to give her.”
That afternoon Gail and Toons showed up together at my school. I was in class, sitting at my table gluing dead honeybees onto skewers as a part of a science class (we were going to fly them around the classroom to show how bees pollinate flowers), when they came in. They talked to the teacher for a bit and then sat in the back and observed. It was the last few minutes of the school day, and their presence sent waves of fear through me.
The bell rang and everyone except me was dismissed. The four of us–Toons, Gail, Mrs. Light, and me–sat at one of the little tables. Mrs. Light brought a folder of my work and spread it out. I looked down at me work, sure that I had done something wrong. I remember in particular focusing on one of the pictures I’d drawn, and all I could see was the mistakes I’d made, coloring outside the lines or using unusual colors. I’d been in a hurry, I wanted to tell them. Instead I sat there and answered their questions about my work, my friends, how I felt about school, what I was reading.
Later, we ate pizza together, and Toons and Gail continued their conversation. I had the impression that their attitude towards me had changed, and it made me uncomfortable. I was a precious object now. Toons even started calling me Nina.
Gail suddenly became a presence in my life. Not just the social worker who came by once a quarter, but a–a what? a friend? a concerned adult?–who stopped by maybe once a week. She always had things to give Toons. She even started calling him Toons, not Clarence. Our name reversal bothered me even more.
Because I was eight years old and because I was uncomfortable, I started to make a muck of things. Not on purpose, of course. But where I had seemed content just to be alive, I now started asserting myself and my divine right to be bad.
In a tough part of rough city, it wasn’t hard to find outlets. I’d get my homework done waiting for Toons to pick me up, and after dinner I could run outside and play with the neighborhood kids who didn’t bother doing homework at all. We were only children, so despite out appalling vocabulary and larcenous imaginations we did’t get into any real trouble, but we adopted as our role models the Gs and hoochies who paraded past us every day and who, in many cases, were our legal guardians.
Toons watched this all with dismay. “I’m too late,” he told Gail. She talked him down, but I could tell that she was worried, too.
Gail’s research led us to a school in Park Slope. Toons insisted on my wearing a dress instead of the oversized white T-shirt that had become my uniform. He found something resembling a suit at church yard sale. Gail came in civilian clothes and offered no indication as to what our relationship could be.
I remember being asked to read a passage from a book. I wanted to mess it up so I could get out of there but the words were so easy I couldn’t figure out how to plausibly fuck it up. Then some blocks to build with. This was easier to sabotage, except that the blocks were shapes and designs I’d never seen before and I actually wanted to play with them, so I did. And then a few questions with what must have been the oldest woman I’d ever seen. The whitest one, too.
The old white woman asked to speak to Toons and Gail in private, and left me with the blocks. They spoke for maybe twenty minutes, and then we went home. It was like before: Toons started happy, and then with each passing block he grew more despondent. “They pay the fees and give her the food, but what about the other shit? Clothes and books and shit. Other kids have birthday parties. I can’t afford that.”
I woke up in the night to find him missing, but I knew where he’d be. I looked out the window and there he was, pacing up and down the block like before. Being a parent to a gifted child was more than his marijuana-laced mind could handle. It wasn’t fair to him. I put on my shoes and went outside.
“I don’t want to go to that school.”
“They just a bunch of white bitches.”
Toons had never ordered me to stop doing anything. It stung.
Gail brought me clothes, ugly clothes that I couldn’t wear anywhere in my neighborhood. She bought Toons some clothes, too, so he could walk with me across Brooklyn with pride. The sleeves covered the worst of his tattoos.
Just a few weeks later the same ancient white woman called them in to say that they were concerned that this wasn’t working out. That night I received the first real scolding of my life. In my eight years I’d gone to bed hungry, cold, and injured more times than I could count, but I had never gone to bed feeling angry. Angry, and ashamed.
For a while anger and shame were the poles I passed between constantly. The work was hard. I did and didn’t want to make friends in equal measures. I resented my long walk to school. I did get the tutor Mrs. Light had suggested, but because I needed to catch up to my classmates in many of the subjects, and Toons still couldn’t get to me on time.
This went on for a while.
Not for long enough.
Whenever I complained about our poverty it was to convince him to take me out of that school. But that was a non-starter, so he tried to remedy our poverty through other means.
The details don’t matter. Enough of them are a matter of public record now. What matters is that we needed more money, and he was already taking as much from Gail as she could give without getting herself into trouble at work. And he had no other skills, and my mother and grandmother by then were both dead.
We were walking down Flatbush when the shots rang out. Toons must have known it was coming. He moved quickly to cover me, because the shooter wasn’t aiming high, at him. He was aiming low, at me.
To kill me, to punish him.
On a busy avenue in broad daylight. You don’t have to be a genius to be a criminal.
He fired three shots before fight or flight seized the crowd on Flatbush. Most people ran. Four or five men tackled the shooter.
Toons grabbed ahold of me and lifted me clear off the sidewalk. He ran off of Flatbush and onto the leafy streets of Park Slope. He ran as fast as he could, as far as he could, wrapping his skeletal frame around me the entire way. Long after the commotion had dimmed in the distance he kept running.
He never let go of me. After a half-dozen blocks he stopped and bent down so my feet rested on the ground, but he didn’t let me turn around. He held me tight, his head just over mine.
Toons was born outside of Charleston, South Carolina, and moved to Brooklyn when he was six years old. He was taken into state custody when he was seven, and bounced from home to home until he was legally an adult. Without a diploma, with no job skills, no understanding of how the normal world worked. He actually had three children, though I only met my half-siblings a couple of times in all while Toons was alive, and never again after he died.
On the street in Park Slope Toons stood over me, weeping over his failure. The shot that hit him would have hit me, in the back of my head. Instead it entered just behind his ear. It didn’t kill him instantly, but it killed him nonetheless. It just took a few hours.
I asked him once, “How do you know you’re my dad?”
“Damn, Worm. Because I just know. You look like me.”
“But, like, what if you aren’t really? What if you’re just wearing a mask, and I don’t know you’re wearing a mask and even you don’t know you’re wearing a mask, but under that mask you’re not my dad but just you, just like the little kid you were before me?”
I remember the expression on his face. I have to remember the expression because there were no words. He didn’t know what to say. We were sitting on the couch, and Toons couldn’t think and sit at the same time but I’d probably put his legs to sleep by sitting on them. So all he could do was look at me.
The expression was of a man who had just come to understand something, and the majesty of the revelation was such that he couldn’t even see all of it, he could just sense that it was there.
I remember the question because he never forgot it, and he told that story to everyone he wanted to impress. Their reactions were always the same, but never as profound as his.
I remember his face because he was my dad, and because that dawning was my doing.
I was taken into state custody that evening, but only for a few days. Gail found me and took me home. She wasn’t the rich white family that Toons had hoped for, and she wasn’t in any way better than he was, not even two percent, but she was enough. Between us we found a way to finish what he had started, to prove to him that he had been right in all the ways that mattered.