Kristie Robin Johnson
I always wondered why we called her Cherry when her real name was Jacqueline. Maybe her own mother became as intoxicated by her as I had. Maybe she looked at her baby girl, pulled her close, and breathed her in—letting her lungs overflow with the infant’s beauty. Maybe she saw her daughter and saw springtime in Augusta. Sweet cherry blossoms. Thick and fragrant magnolias. Pines towering over a magnificent green sea. She fell in love instantly. So even though the child’s name read Jaqueline on the birth certificate, she declared Let’s call her Cherry.
Cherry and I grew up just blocks away from the Augusta National and I think I worshipped her the same way white folks worshipped that course. The golf course, where they host the Master’s Tournament, represented everything that we were not and would never be. Money that we could never make. Extravagance in which we could never indulge. Skin we could never live in. Cherry’s splendor felt just as impossible. Her skin was a striking, creamy sarsaparilla color offset by hair the color of midnight. Her eyes were two cups of piping hot black coffee, the iris’ indistinguishable from the pupils. If we had been born a pair of slave girls, she surely would have been deemed fit for the tepid comforts of the big house while I would have been relegated to the constant steam of the cotton fields. She was beautiful in a way that I could never achieve and instead of obeying the first impulse to envy her, I chose to make her a living, breathing idol. And like all beautiful girls, she had an older brother, Trey.
Even though Trey was older, he failed to sparkle like Cherry. He had a ruddy, brown complexion and a body made for hard labor—brick laying, concrete pouring, jackhammering and the such. But since those jobs were reserved for white boys with no ambition and a select handful of black boys whose daddies “knew somebody”, he did what most of the boys in our neighborhood did. He flipped burgers for a minimum wage and learned to supplement his meager income by selling marijuana. A lot of people believe that all drug dealers are Tony Montana, an insane mix of wrath and luxury. This is light years away from truth. Guys like Trey were some of the humblest people you’d ever meet in your life and worked just as hard as a guy with a “straight” job. And they weren’t rich by any means. They sold dope to get by. To pay rent. To buy groceries and pampers. To keep the lights and water on. It wasn’t despicable as most think. But for Trey, it did become dangerous.
I went off to college, leaving behind Cherry, Trey, most of my peers, oppressive Deep South summers, and that maddening, untouchable golf course. My mother called one day around mid-term of my second semester, They done killed Trey. The trembling in her voice and pity in her tone defined her “they.” The heavy sigh and sorrow anchored by a familiar disappointment travelled through the phone, telling me that “they” were the cops. Trey had been involved in a police chase. They had cornered him in front of his house, in the middle of the cul-de-sac. According to witnesses, they jumped out of the cruiser, guns drawn, yelling Get out with your hands up. Show me your hands. Witnesses said Trey waved the whites of his hands from the car and started to get out of the vehicle, then POP, POP, POP, PA-POP-POP, PA-POP-POP. He never took another breath. Investigations revealed that Trey didn’t have a weapon on his person or in his car. The officers who murdered Trey said they feared for their lives and were customarily acquitted and returned to their secure jobs and pensions and lives. I hung up the phone heavy with the news of Trey’s murder, but also relieved. For the first time leaving the neghborhood felt so right. A runaway, a fugitive.
Two years later, on a rare visit home, I sat on my mother’s porch with Cherry. We traded girlhood confessions underneath a marigold sunset. We laughed out loud as she revealed a prepubescent crush on MC Hammer and I recalled Deion Sanders as my first true love. As it got darker, the mood fell with the sun. Cherry’s eyes were still a mysterious black, but the gleam had long disappeared. Girl did I tell you one of the cops that killed Trey got arrested and kicked off the force? Shocked, I replied No, what happened? She answered, Oh you gonna love this. He got caught scalping Master’s tickets. Should’ve been surprised, but I didn’t flinch. Justice for us was lightning—rare, dazzling, never striking the same place twice. A 4x6 square piece of plastic costed more than a brown boy’s bullet-riddled body. Some things never change.
The same throng of rich tourists will file through those gates every spring drawing in magnolias and azaleas with every breath, slipping off loafers and sandals and wiggling pink toes in that glorious grass, gathering around Amen Corner in a communal hush, golden tickets circling their precious necks. Maybe, just maybe, when the mob is perfectly still, they’ll hear Trey’s screams in the pines.
You are me. And you slide your phone out of the back pocket of your jeans to realize that you’ve been standing in line now for 17 minutes. The old you would have complained by now, demanded to speak to a manager. But the new you is humbled by the lady in front of you who has been waiting just as long, managing a young toddler and a baby. You’ve passed some of the time playing an impromptu game of peek-a-boo with the baby who is resting happily in a well-worn carrier. It’s something that you haven’t allowed yourself to do in a while, but you openly admire the cloud of chestnut curls on his head and take some fleeting joy in his laughter and innocence. The carrier’s scuffs, scratches, and dingy fabric lead you to deduct that it is secondhand at best. The toddler, who’s spent most of the time taxying between her mother’s arms and the floor next to the baby in the carrier, is wearing a bright orange shirt that looks to be about one size too small.
When you first walked in, you took stock—stock of the building, waiting room and its inhabitants; stock of the circumstances that brought you back to this place. Right away, you noticed that the building was old and outdated. Many of the ceiling tiles were a yellowish-brown color from apparent water damage. There were no windows, no sunlight spilling into the drab space. The waiting room wall was lined with open cubicles. Each cubicle had a plastic blue chair in front of it and a telephone. Some even had telephone books next to the phones. This reminded you that this place, this situation, these people were all relics to the mainstream world that existed outside these pitiful walls that were covered with posters and flyers touting the benefits of breastfeeding, warning you of the consequences of food stamp fraud, and dutifully listing the numbers of agencies that help with utility bills. Each sign was printed in English as well as Spanish. There was an out-of-order Coke machine to your left and two check-in windows directly in front of you. You immediately noticed that the windows were bullet proof, as though they were all too aware of the infuriating level of frustration that just one visit to the Columbia County Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS) could cause. Somehow, you’d forgotten.
A little over a year ago, your divorce was finalized. It had been one of those instances in life that began with great trepidation but ended with great relief. You had learned to take care of yourself, your two growing boys, pay the mortgage, car note, light bill, water bill, cable bill, and phone bill with an annual income just under $40,000.00 and $500.00 a month in child support payments. Five months ago, you got an email that changed everything. It was an acceptance letter from Georgia College. They thought that you were a decent writer, in fact, so decent that they offered you a slot in the upcoming class of creative nonfiction writers. Since you were 16, writing had been your recovery, therapy, sanity, and sanctuary. Writing anchored you through a reluctant career change from politics to higher education, seven years of a bad marriage, the numerous struggles of raising a child with disabilities, the sudden death of your mother. The notion of writing professionally was too dangerously close for you to pass up the opportunity. So, you secured a graduate assistantship to cover tuition and scheduled a meeting with the chair of the MFA Creative Writing department.
Two months ago, your stomach churned to the point of mild nausea while you waited for the President. Well, not the President. But Mr. E was close enough. He was your boss at the community college where you worked. The envelope in your hand that contained your official letter of resignation might as well have weighed 500 pounds by the time Mr. E welcomed you into his office. You couldn’t contain your nerves as you explained to him that you’d been given a rare opportunity that girls who were raised by addicts and became mothers too soon don’t often get. You felt your shaky cadence quicken as you told him about your passion for writing, the anticipated 80-mile one way daily commute, the graduate assistantship, the impossibility of retaining full-time employment. You were exhilarated and scared shitless.
Three weeks ago, you crunched the numbers. You realized that even with student loans, child support, and part-time employment, you still needed help. Help—an idea hidden within the fabled concept of American ingenuity, buried underneath the Horatio Alger myth and the fictitious “self-made man”. Because you had been brought up in a society and culture built upon these tales, help was just another dirty four-letter word to you. To have to say it out loud, even to yourself, almost made you physically ill. You thought that you’d outgrown this part of your life. Help was for directionless, uneducated saps. Help was for the for girl that you used to be—the college dropout, unmarried pregnant teenager. Up until this moment, you had not realized that you had judged your younger self so harshly, perhaps unfairly. You’d spent the last fifteen years patting yourself on the back for returning to school, completing bachelor’s and master’s degrees; finding a good man and getting married; landing a decent job, not once but twice. Too often, you had failed to acknowledge all the help that you received along the way. Your mother and grandmother helped care for your child for free allowing you to complete your education. An eager and generous professor encouraged your career path, even recommended you for jobs. A colleague and friend thought of you first when a coveted opportunity in your field became available. You had been given a tremendous amount of help. It didn’t always come from Uncle Sam, but it always came from someone. So, you abruptly got over your self-righteous vision of the woman that you thought you were and you pulled up the Georgia Department of Human Resources website and completed the application for Food Stamp Benefits.
Which brought you here to this line, these sad walls, the impenetrable glass that separates you from the help that you need. When you finally reach the front of the line, you recognize a familiar warmth on the face of the lady behind the glass. She reminds you of your great aunt—bifocals and a kind smile. Even though there are two windows she is the only one at the desk. And, also like your great aunt, she does not move with any deliberate amount of speed. In your hands, you are holding copies of your sons’ birth certificates and your separation letter from the college. As you approach, you direct your words toward the holes in the glass. “I’m returning my verification documents” mindfully using the departmental jargon with the hopes that you might be treated a tad better than the average applicant. The kind-faced lady barely gives you a second look. She asks for your social security number. You give it to her. Then she types several keystrokes on her keyboard. The computer has a blinder on it that keeps you from seeing what’s on the screen and you think to yourself that this place, this whole damn system, is designed to keep people in their place—behind the glass, blind to the process, beneath the precious line between poverty and barely getting by. Then she gets up and drags her body over to the copier behind her desk. You notice how her body rocks from left to right like a boat as she makes the tiny voyage. She seems exhausted and it’s only a few minutes past eleven in the morning. She returns to the window with your original documents. You ask her what are the next steps. She curtly replies “You’ll get a notice in the mail in a few days.”
You walk out the office and head to your car thinking August in Georgia is never kind. It’s always been stifling, unbearable, humbling. The distance from DFCS to your house is a series of winding state roads lined with towering pine trees, several modest homes built on lots measured in acres, a rock quarry, the county fairgrounds, two Wal-Marts, and no less than twenty subdivisions boasting four and five-bedroom homes on intolerably small lots luring ex-urbanites into their “planned neighborhoods” promising less crime, excellent schools, the goddamn American Dream. This trip reminds you of the reason you moved to Columbia County. Outwardly, to ensure your children an alleged “better education.” Inwardly, to escape the uneven, jagged face of poverty—schools situated in the hearts of housing projects, boyfriends with precarious futures and pockets full of dime bags, hand-me-down clothes from the daughter of the bank president that your grandma keeps house for, Christmases replete with drug store toys and knock-off jeans and sneakers, monthly visits to the greasy payday loan spot, mamas with too many jobs and never enough money, mamas’ mamas who never get to taste the sweet liberated air of retirement and work right up until the day they die, hopes that hinge upon lucky numbers and neon colored scratch-off cards and birthing a world-class athlete or singer or rapper. You came because you wanted out. You wanted to never look back. When you get home, you realize that you are not the same person that left this morning. You are a taker now. Or at least that’s what you’re convinced the world will think when you head out grocery shopping next month with your tell-tale EBT card.
The lady behind the glass’ “few days” turns out to be eleven. The envelope is heavy like the needless credit card offers that flooded your mailbox when you were gainfully employed. The Texas return address throws you off at first, but you soon realize that’s where the processing center is located. You open it slowly, not really wanting the package enclosed but knowing that you need it. The last time that you felt this way you were nine and you were opening a birthday gift from your grandma. You knew it was the winter coat that you needed, but you were secretly wishing for a Nintendo Power Pad to peek from underneath the tissue paper and bows. The card itself is rather pleasant to the eye. It features an artist’s rendering of two ripe peaches still attached to the tree, surrounded by bright green leaves. The words “GEORGIA EBT” are sprawled across the front in white and yellow capital letters, a bold reminder that this is not a luxury. This reminds you that you are now dependent upon the state. This reminds you that there is a cost to pursuing dreams and sometimes the price is your pride.
You put off using the card until you absolutely have to, until there is nothing in the pantry but a six-month-old box of cereal and two jars of peanut butter that remain unopened mainly because you and your oldest son have peanut allergies. You have two months’ worth of benefits on your card which amounts to $658.00. When you were an underemployed, undergraduate, twenty-year-old single mom, that money was a godsend. Today, it’s an inconvenient mirror casting an unwelcome reflection. You plan this trip to the supermarket meticulously. You will not wear make-up. You will put on jeans, sneakers, and old blue sweatshirt with two small bleach stains on the right sleeve. You make a list that only includes food items—fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, canned foods, dry goods—things that can be paid for with food stamp benefits. You will not be purchasing other non-food staples like paper towels, toilet paper, trash bags, or soap. Over the past two weeks, you’ve created a somewhat narcissistic narrative in your mind that the clerk and the people waiting in line behind you will judge you less harshly if you don’t seem too “put together” or appear to have resources other than that which the government dispenses. You want to look sufficiently poor.
You consider going to a store outside of your neighborhood, but you decide against it. The EBT card is less conspicuous than the actual paper food stamps of your youth. You can only recall seeing them on a few occasions on trips to the grocery store with your grandma. You are pretty sure that they weren’t hers. You’re sure that she purchased them from a neighbor or cousin who needed cash more than they needed food, probably near the end of the month or around the holidays or some time when Grandma had less money than bills that were due (which you remember being most of the time). You remember the old stamps looking like pages in a coupon book. It was almost impossible to use them without other shoppers noticing. The EBT card is not much different from anyone else’s debit card or credit card. The average person can’t distinguish one from the other and probably doesn’t care. But you are convinced that every blue, brown, green, and gray iris in the vicinity will be fixated on your personal financial crisis.
The first few minutes in the grocery store are normal. You examine the bananas, looking for the bunch with a slight streak of green running the length of the peel. You select the milk with latest expiration date. You get the boys’ favorite brand of cereal and the marinara sauce that makes your spaghetti sing. Then you get to the meat department. This is where you’d normally start to cringe at the prices and start thinking about how many gallons of gas you need to put in your car this week and the data plan on your phone. But calm settles over you as you pick up a package of split chicken breasts, the chill from the plastic wrapping numbing the tips of your fingers. It dawns on you that you can get the chicken and the ground turkey and the pork chops and the swai fillet. It’s the first time in a while that you’ve been able to shop without that small voice in your head reminding you of all of your other expenses. It feels euphoric until you make your way to the register. Never once in your life have you agonized so over which check-out lane to go through. You cannot use the express lane, you have way more than 12 items. A quick survey of the other aisles reveals four choices: the nerdy girl with the thick-rimmed glasses who’s always smiling, the older lady with shoulder length gray hair who always attempts to strike up a conversation about the items in your shopping cart, the short middle-aged woman whom you’ve always pegged to be a manager, or the beautiful Hispanic man with the bad tattoo on his forearm. You choose the bad tattoo guy. His lane is closest to the door and he isn’t a stranger to regrettable decisions. You take labored but invisible breaths as you place your items on the conveyer belt. After the last pack of Ramen Noodles makes its way to the scanner, you pull out your wallet and hold it so close to your chest that you’re sure the customer behind you thinks that you fear getting mugged right there in the middle of the Food Lion. You delicately slide your EBT card out of the wallet face down, so that only the reader strip is visible. As you swipe the card, you notice that you’ve forgotten one detail—your nails. Your painted, manicured nails. They’re Boston College Red to be exact. Only you and bad tattoo guy know your secret but that small voice in your head that used to warn you about your bank account balance is now telling you all the things that bad tattoo guy is thinking. She got money to get her nails done, but she can’t buy groceries. A damn shame. I feel sorry for her kids. I bet she got at least four.
You make it out of the store, but tears start to well up in your eyes. Pushing the cart across the parking lot, you want to scream into the rich, chiseled faces of Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney and Ronald Reagan and any other person who shares their backward perceptions of poverty This is no fucking victory lap! There is no triumph in surviving and not thriving. There are no “queens” here. There are, however, more than 40 million Americans (most of whom work) who share this experience with you. As you drive home, you’re fighting back tears and you realize that you’re lucky to live in a nation that offers help, as despicable as it may sound to some, your old self included. There is only nobility—not shame—in not allowing children to go hungry. The fact that we can and often do help others in need should be a national point of pride, not some humiliating burden. You know that this is not your forever, but it is your right now. You roll down the windows and let the wind catch your pain as you watch the store disappear in the rearview mirror.
Kristie Robin Johnson is a native of Augusta, Georgia. She is currently enrolled in the MFA Creative Writing program at Georgia College and State University. Her work has appeared in Atlanta Free Speech and other local publications.