Self-Mutilation (Creative Expressions)

Raking: A Short Story Part 1

So, I thought I’d try something a little bit different and introduce my readers to another aspect of my writing. If you’ve read my bio, you know that I’m a poet, but I like to think that I write a little bit of everything: poems, articles, scripts, short stories. So…introducing a new category for the blog: “Self-Mutilations,” for my own art and creative works, in whatever form they may take. One of my favorite fellow writer-of-all-trades is Erica Buddington. If you’ve never been to her site before, (www.rivaflowz.com), check it out. It’s awesome. Anyway, she does an amazing job of mixing the many genres in which she writes, so I thought I’d give it a try. The following is an excerpt from a short story I wrote called “Raking.” I submitted it to a few places, but it was never picked up, so that’s what blogs are for! It’s a long piece (a long-short lol) so I thought I’d give you a taste. If you like it, I may post the rest of it in several parts. Let me know what you think!

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As we pulled up to the house, he was raking leaves with a broom in the front yard. He gripped the broom so tightly with both hands that the veins running downward from his knuckles bulged out from underneath his skin. The top of the broom’s plastic yellow handle had become bent like a child’s bitten straw.

“Oh Lord,” I said, as my mother parked the car in front of the house, “He doesn’t look happy.”

“At least he’s doing some house work,” she said. “It’s about time mommy got one of the men in that house to help her out. She does everything else for them.”

“True.”  “I feel sorry for the broom though,” I laughed.

We got out of the car and swung open the black wrought-iron gate.

“Hey, Prince,” I called to him as I entered the yard and started up the red-painted pathway that led to my grandmother’s front stoop. I didn’t bother to wait for a reply before proceeding to climb the steps.  I was used to Prince’s sullen attitude. He had a unique talent for using as few words as possible to respond to whatever communication he received from us, especially the responses that he felt were implied.

“Hey” was definitely one of those implied responses. Whether he returned it or not, he knew that the moment could and would continue normally, as if I had said nothing at all. It was almost like saying “how are you” to someone that you knew as you passed them on the street. No one really listened for a response. They just assumed that you said “fine”, and if you didn’t, by the time they realized it, they were already two blocks away. As a result of this tradition of ready-made implied responses, many New York City youth had given up a verbal greeting for their acquaintances altogether and had simply replaced it with a head nod.

When neither a response nor a head nod came from Prince, my mother, who could care less about New York City youth culture and who was well-documented in her disgust for my fourteen-year-old cousin’s lack of manners and respect, immediately sought to regulate the situation. Pushing the gate closed behind her with a force that was just shy of a slam but full of no-nonsense “I-don’t-have-time-for-your-attitude-today” seriousness, she turned to face my cousin before approaching the steps leading up to the house.

“Hello,” she said, staring at him indignantly, as he dragged a handful of brownish-orange leaves underneath the tattered bristles of the broom.

Prince looked sheepishly in my mother’s direction, while continuing with his task. He began taking wider strokes with the broom in an attempt to gather more leaves at once. He was more than aware that his implied response would not suffice for my mother’s “hello.” My “hey” was one thing, but her “hello” was something entirely different.

“Hi,” he replied, in between broom strokes without looking directly at her.

Still staring at him, she continued. “Did you speak to your cousin?”

“Me?” he asked, trying to remove tangled dead leaves that were stuck in the bristles of the broom.

My mother turned her head to look in both directions on the Brooklyn street. The block was quiet. I had grown up with most of the children who lived there. We were all college-aged now, and no one could be found jumping rope in the front yard of the nearly-attached houses or riding their bicycles just outside their front gates.  It was a cloudy Saturday morning, and people were probably either still in bed or out early running their weekend errands. Aside from the scraping of the broom against the pavement, the only sound came from the rumble of the L Train when it passed by. No one else was in sight.

“Who else am I talking to?” she snapped. “Yes, you.”

He paused in his sweeping, adjusted his all-black Yankee cap, glanced in my direction at the top of the stoop, then he looked back down at the pile of leaves that was accumulating at his feet. “I didn’t hear her,” he said.

“But you saw her?” she returned.

I sighed heavily at the top of the stoop. It was getting chilly outside, and I didn’t feel like being the unwilling subject of another one of Prince’s etiquette lessons.

“Ma, really, it’s ok,” I tried to help him out.

She put her hand up to signal that this was not about me. I leaned against the banister and waited for her to finish with her lesson.

“Well?” she demanded, still waiting for Prince.

“Sorry,” he offered, pulling his green hood over his head as the wind began to pick up. His pile of leaves scattered again in the wind, and he beat the broom against the pavement more fiercely in aggravation.

“Umm-hmmm,” she answered, turning away from him at last and beginning to walk towards the stoop. “Why are you raking leaves with a broom anyway?” she asked.

He looked down at the broom in his hand as if he were considering for the first time that it might not be the most appropriate instrument for the completion of his task. “It’s what grandma always uses,” he shrugged.

“This is true,” I added. I pictured her wrinkled brown hands clutching the broom almost like a cane as she moved it along the yard attempting to get all the dead leaves in one spot.

“All these dead leaves messing up my garden,” she would say.

My grandmother’s “garden” was a narrow row that ran vertically down the length of the left side of the yard. It was just wide enough for me to stand in, and when we were younger, whenever one of us kids would accidentally throw our ball or anything in there while playing outside, she would have a fit if we went in there to retrieve it. We always had to inform her of our dilemma, and she would come outside and get whatever we had lost herself so that we wouldn’t step on her plants. The row was separated from the rest of the front walkway that led up to the house by a shell-shaped cement edge that was painted red like the rest of the walkway. She had filled the row up with soil and planted flowers and shrubs there for as long as I could remember. There were always tulips in the spring, and there was a “Christmas tree,” as I called it, that was there year-round, which she liked to decorate in the winter. She had another tree in the plot of grass outside of the gate just in front of her house that also counted as part of her garden.

Growing up, I remember thinking that her love of gardening was evidence of her South Carolina roots. She refused to let the space limitations of urban life keep her from using the land in the way that she saw fit. She watered and tended to the plants faithfully, especially when my cousins and I were younger. It was because of her that my proud city-slicker self knew or even cared about the difference between a tulip and a daisy. Those plants, like us, were her creations, and she was going to tend to them no matter what.

“Grandma, it’s autumn. Your plants are going to die soon anyway. It’s getting colder,” I would say, as I watched her stick the broom underneath her flowers and shrubs and then move it back to her pile in the center of the yard.

“That don’t mean I want leaves all in them. Look at my pretty tree going bare, just losing its leaves,” she would say sadly as she gathered them up.

I would always tell her that they would come back in the spring.

“Not these leaves,” she would say, looking at the pile again. “These same leaves will never come back.”

That’s the interesting thing about autumn. It’s that season of the year when the Sun cuts Mother Nature’s umbilical cord. I remember thinking of those conversations with my grandmother and being fascinated by the process when I learned about it later on in science class at school. As it gets closer to winter, the sun shines less and plant leaves aren’t able to use sunlight to make enough chlorophyll, that stuff that makes leaves green. Since their chlorophyll supply is limited, the leaves change colors, and they cannot make as much food during the process of photosynthesis, and eventually, they die. The same process takes place for most plants in autumn.

Even though everyone always talks about the objectivity of science, this process always sounded like the story of a struggling family to me. Mother Nature is no longer able to provide for her children due to limited resources and ever-decreasing contributions from the Sun. As a result, her children suffer, and eventually, they fall. Autumn is the only season that has a nickname. Any matriarch understands the pain of having to watch her children suffer, especially when there is nothing that she can do to stop it. So grandma did the next best thing; she tried to clean up afterwards. Until that moment, I had never thought to ask her why she didn’t just use a rake.

My mother met me at the top of the stoop, and I turned to ring my grandmother’s doorbell.

“Why is the door closed if she knows that Prince is out here?” I thought to myself. Another one of my grandmother’s mama bear tendencies was to never shut her door unless all of us grandchildren were inside. It didn’t matter if we were simply raking the front yard. She would watch us out of the kitchen window and leave the door open and unlocked in case we needed to use the bathroom or to run inside quickly in case of any emergency. It was like a rite of passage when she finally allowed my friends and I to play outside of the gate. Even then we were only allowed to play in front of the three to four houses in either direction of her kitchen-window view, and we had to come back inside the gate by the time it got dark outside.

Apparently, my mother noticed the closed door too. “Is your grandmother inside?” she asked Prince, who had managed to get most of the leaves back in a pile again.

“Uh-huh,” he said, without looking up.

I looked at my mother. “Maybe she got cold and wanted to keep the heat in the house,” she said.

“Wouldn’t she just turn one of the stove burners on?” I asked.

To anyone else these practices might have been strange, but they were the type of activities that we expected from my grandmother: turning one of the front burners on when it got cold but not cold enough to turn the heat on yet, raking the leaves with a broom, but not closing the door while one of her grandchildren was still outside.

We rang the doorbell and waited. After about a minute, when she had not answered the door and we had not heard her yell that she was coming, we knocked on the outside door.

“Is the bell working?” I asked Prince.

He shrugged his shoulders and pushed the pile of leaves to the other side of the yard in the direction of the house next door.

As we continued to wait for my grandmother to answer the door, my mother pulled out her cell phone and called the house. No one answered the phone at my grandmother’s house, and my mother began to panic. Next, she called my Uncle Emmanuel, who lived with my grandmother.

“Is your father home?” she called to Prince in a heightened tone as she waited for Uncle Emmanuel to pick up. She didn’t want Prince to know that she was worried, but she wanted to get inside. Prince pushed the pile of leaves back to the other side of the yard.

“Prince!” she yelled.

“Huh?” he responded from midway across the yard, as though he had just snapped out of a daydream.

“Is Uncle Manny here?” I repeated.

He stared at me blankly. My mother was losing her patience.

“Boy!” she screamed at him. “What is wrong with you? Is your father home? Why isn’t anyone answering the door?”

“I don’t know,” he said, and continued to push the pile of leaves. Neither my mother nor I knew which of her three questions he was answering, and we did not have time to find out.

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