We’re happy to feature an excerpt from Chris L. Terry‘s novel Zero Fade today. Set in Richmond, Virginia in 1994, Zero Fade follows its thirteen-year-old protagonist, Kevin Phifer, through familial discord, bad haircuts, and more. Kirkus Reviews noted that Phifer “belongs in the front ranks of fiction’s hormone-addled, angst-ridden adolescents, from Holden Caulfield to the teenage Harry Potter.” Today and tomorrow, Terry will be taking part in three readings in Brooklyn and Manhattan, beginning this evening at Mellow Pages Library.
I was trying to do homework at my desk when funk started bumping from Mama’s room. Pistol crack snares and a strutting bassline. The rhythm found me, and I bobbed my head. Laura was cheering, “Aww, Mama!” through the wall. Too thin wall. Can’t let the mattress squeak when I’m jerking off before sleep.
They’d been doing some girl stuff, going through clothes, and every now and then, some laughter would flutter out into the hall. It was wack that Mama said tapes during homework were “too distracting,” but here she goes having fun. I felt kinda jealous, so I went over there.
That was a big mistake. Shiny disco shirts were thrown across Mama’s bed, with jewelry boxes open like deep-sea treasure chests. The tape was cranked until it fuzzed out, and the whole sloppy place had an electric shock feel. Laura stood by the bed grinning 135
and clapping to the rhythm, but that wasn’t nothing, because Mama was on my Eddie Murphy stage with her back to the door, bobbing her head side-to-side and dropping her spine every two beats, bopping her butt left then right. Old people getting down young people-style. Nasty.
“Y’all need to cut this mess out. I’m doing my homework!”
Mama froze for a second, and her eyes rolled up to mine in the mirror. At the start of the next bar, the rhythm hit her like lightning to a tree, and she said, “Hush up, boy. I heard your radio two minutes ago,” then hunkered over, wagging her butt at me.
Laura yelled, “Aww naw!” and looked to see what I’d say, twisting her leg, doing the Tootsie Roll.
I couldn’t think of nothing but, “Oh!”
Laura danced over, shooting her pointy elbows back so her breasts popped at me to the beat, and shut the door, blocking Mama’s booty (Eww, Mama’s booty) then her own laughing face. The funk sounded less fuzzy through the closed door. I went and cut on my Redman tape loud enough to drown their mess out. How could I erase my mind and get rid of what I’d just seen?
After one Redman verse, there was a knock on my door. Mama, warm and frizzy from dancing. My mouth was a storm of cuss words waiting to come crashing.
“Sorry ‘bout that, baby.”
Seeing Mama booty dance made me feel about a thousand years older, and the least horny that I’d been since sixth grade.
“We’ll turn it down. But you need to cut that tape off and finish your homework.”
Mama’s jewelry box clapped shut in her room.
“What are y’all doing in there?”
What do girls do when they hang out? I figured it’d be more chill than that. Like maybe they put on lots of makeup then didn’t move so they wouldn’t smudge it.
“Laura was going through my closet,” Mama’s mouth shut, and she looked at the wall.
“For your date?”
“Yes. For that.”
Laura appeared in the hall, grinning in some orangey-brown Soul Train BS.
“So, why him? Why this guy from work?”
I’d hoped Redman would make me feel tough, but next to his music, I just sounded whiny. I stepped back to hit Stop, and Mama followed me into the room. Laura looked from me to Mama and back, smiling, waiting for us to notice her get-up.
“He’s nice. I like working with him, so I figure he might be fun to go out with. It’s not like we’re going to the wedding chapel.”
I sat on the bed. Laura stepped into the doorway and thrust a hip forward, bouncing a pillow-sized turquoise purse. I was surprised I sounded a little hopeful when I asked, “You gonna get married again, Mama?”
Laura dropped her pose and stared with a hand on the purse clasp. I scooted toward my dresser as Mama sat at my desk, biggest schoolgirl ever.
“I don’t know. I wouldn’t mind it at some point, but it’s way too soon to know, baby. ‘sides, I got a lot on my hands.”
She put both palms up, showing her invisible load, and asked, “Would you guys…want that?”
“Not if you left us here.”
Why did I say that?
“Boy, she would take us too. We still kids!” Laura said, and looked at Mama to be sure she was right.
“I just don’t wanna get left!”
Crying in my voice. Dang.
“For real, though,” Laura said. “What are y’all gonna do Friday night?”
Mama sat straight in my chair all proud. “We’re goin’ to a concert.”
Me and Laura nodded. I ain’t gonna lie. I wanted to go to a concert.
# # #
These are the things I know about this Earnest MF that Mama’s going on a date with:
Don’t call a guy your Mama’s going on a date with a MF. Think about it. Nasty.
They work together. He’s a janitor.
He’s a little, Jiminy Cricket-looking nigga with them creepy glasses that get raspberry jam-colored when he steps out into the sun.
His mop handle is taller than him.
He wears crackerish plaid shirts with a pack of cigarettes in the pocket that looks like a brick since the shirt and the rest of him are so small.
He says “Alright” all the time, instead of “Yes” and “Hello,” and he draws it out long but doesn’t say all the letters: “Awlll-ryyyyyyye.”
“Alright, Kevin. How you doin’ today?”
“Alright, nice weekend.”
When it’s time to go home, and he says a long “Alright,” he bounces on his knees like he’s a motor sneaking off farts.
Don’t go spreading this around, but he’s really funny. One time over Christmas, I was waiting by the car while Mama got something she forgot in the church daycare, and Earnest walked up next to me all casual and flipped off the back of the shack with the big nativity scene facing Cary St.
I was like, “What?” when I saw his bony finger in the air. He turned and shook his shoulders laughing, sharing the joke. And it was funny, knowing that on the other side of the shack’s wall was some of those people from the congregation that call each other “Brother this” and “Sister that” like they all family, dressed up in shiny bathrobes, goo-gooing over a musty, black Cabbage Patch Kids doll, and they didn’t know that ol’ Earnest was giving them the bird.
He leaned against the driver’s side door and popped a toothpick in his mouth. The shadow of his eyes gazed out over the church roof. Some fool drove by and honked at the nativity scene. Earnest said, “You know Damian?”
“I guess he a bitch.”
The toothpick switched sides in his mouth. I couldn’t help but smile at the cussing. Earnest said, “Someone wrote ‘Damian a bitch’ in that shack last night. Spent a hour scrubbing it out first thing this morning.”
He looked at his scrubbing hands. Once I figured out he didn’t think I’d done it, I laughed through my nose, like grown-ups. A little bit of laugh at someone writing that, and a little bit of laugh at how messed up it was that Earnest had to clean it.
“Damian a bitch,” he repeated, like he’d never heard the b-word before. “Wish they’d get rid of that shack. Smell like pee in there.”
Just as I was appreciating getting talked to like I was grown, Mama came back out the door, and Earnest stood straight, sliding up the car door.
“Don’t go giving him no ideas,” she joked to Earnest.
“Oh no, I was just cleaning your car.” Earnest bent his knees doing the fart thing and rubbing his butt on the door. “Awlll-ryyyyyyye.”
# # #
I don’t know so much about Pop. It’s more bits and pieces, filled in with a couple photos and what Laura remembers since she was around him two years longer. Here goes:
Superman angel Pop in white underpants and a v-neck, lying in a triangle patch of sun on the bedroom floor, doing sit-ups with his fingers laced into the back of his ‘fro like stitches on a football.
Me with a dookie up my diaper to the small of my back, shaking the side of my crib like prison bars while he walks past the door going, “Slow your roll.” Mama walks in a second later, comforting, to pick me up at arm’s length.
He’d call Laura “Ms. La-La,” and they had a baby-talk joke about how apartments don’t have stairs.
I never lived in the apartment, but Laura says she remembers it, and sometimes Mama points it out when we drive by. You can see the fire escape from the avenue because they tore down the grocery that used to be across the alley. Whoever lives in the old apartment has kept a yellow-handled mop outside the back door for two years, and the kitchen window is so small that smells have to squeeze through. It’s hard to picture big things happening in that apartment, like Mama and Pop still being in love, or baby Laura coming home from the hospital wrapped in a pink blanket like in the Polaroid.
They moved into our house when Mama was pregnant with me. She jokes that she carried me across the doorstep like newlyweds, but that’s nasty.
The house has a concrete porch with a brick front. When you walk in through the front door, the living room’s on your right. There’s a fireplace with a mirror on the mantel and the green, flowered couch they brought from the apartment. I like to sit on it and pretend I’m Pop, with my whole life ahead of me.
Left of the fireplace is the dining room, where we eat dinner. The fourth chair is stacked with books and papers because it’s where Mama does her nursing school homework. That could be Pop’s seat, but my Pop is a pile of notebooks.
Straight back from the front door and phone table, through a low door, is the kitchen, with a dark green fridge, two-seat table, and daisy curtains that Mama’s auntie bought before she died and left the house to Mama.
The kitchen’s got the doors to the basement and backyard. If you want to go upstairs, take a left from the front door. The hallway upstairs is kind of a circle, so when all the doors are closed, it looks like a Choose Your Own Adventure story up there.
The bathroom is over the kitchen, and Laura’s bedroom faces the backyard, while Mama’s bedroom faces front and is the biggest one with two windows. My bedroom is the smallest because I’m the youngest, even though I’m bigger than Laura. It’s over the front door. Finally, the closet where Mama keeps the clipper set and extra bedsheets and towels kinda pokes out over the stairs.
When I can’t hear the TV because Laura is stomping around the hall, mad at Mama, I sit on Pop’s old couch and stare at the ceiling, wondering if she’ll stomp through the floor, and burst through the ceiling with plaster dust and cracked boards. She’ll bounce to the floor, then everything from her bedroom will tumble through the hole—lamps, boombox, shoes shoes shoes. The dresser will land on her face and kill her, and the blood will get wiped up by all the shirts that floated down like parachutes. You never know, it’s a old house, from like World War II.
When Mama’s driving me past a crowded sidewalk, I look for Pop. Same at the supermarket. I turn around to see if he’s at the other end of the aisle, ten years older than the last picture with the orange shirt and narrow shoulders, holding a carton of oatmeal and staring at me. When I ask Mama where Pop is, she gets quiet then goes, “I don’t know.” She does the same when I ask if she ever talks to him.
This is what I’d ask Pop if I got to talk to him:
Do you still live in Richmond?
Do you have a house or a apartment?
Do you ever see us but don’t say nothing?
I guess you ain’t married because you would have told us, right?
Do you remember my birthday? Here’s a hint: January 29, 1981.
Do you ever go to Fuddruckers?
Did you used to drive on DMV Drive when you were in high school?
What do you think about your old high school being closed down now and just being a bunch of spraypaint and crackheads?
Did you wish that would happen?
Why do people wanna smoke crack?
What kind of car do you have?
Here’s what I’d tell Pop:
Even if you got married again, you’re still me and Laura’s pop.
I bet you could come over on my birthday. January 29.
I turned thirteen a couple months back. Mama took us to eat at Fuddruckers. You can put all you want on your burger. I like ketchup and mayonnaise because it tastes like pizza.
Laura’s good. She’s fifteen, and she said when she gets her license, we’ll cruise slow on DMV drive.
Mama is good too. She’s still real pretty, and she still works at the daycare at the church. Maybe you could bring her some lunch one day, from Lee’s Famous, and you could talk about stuff, because she doesn’t say a lot about you. Then, she could have some things to tell me.
Me and my friend David, who moved in up the street in first grade, are gonna be famous comedians like on In Living Color. We’re gonna know a million jokes and make movies out of the skits from our TV shows. We practice telling jokes now, and we’re really good. You’ve gotta see it.
You could have named me Tarvon, Jr.
Laura says she wants a Landcruiser.
OK, I admit, last year I wrote a bunch of that stuff in a letter to Pop and just put his name on the envelope, no address, and hoped it’d get to him. Maybe he was the mailman and would find it that way.