Roland's life was complicated to say the least. Grappling with ongoing struggles for quality time, but it continuously slipped his grasp. Somber days began and ended at the tobacco factory. Drifting in and out of consciousness—each working shift was a brutal reminder time escapes no one. Clocking in. Clocking out. While at work time traveled, but at a snail’s pace.
Lugging clumpy mops, dirty buckets, Clorox sprays and all sorts of unbearable cleaning products around the factory was a mundane daily ritual. Last week, Friday marked Roland's twentieth-year working at the factory. As if juggling a stressful work schedule wasn't enough, Roland attempted to guide his young nephew-in-law into adulthood. Things weren't as easy as Dr. Cliff Huxtable made them seem. Life as a responsible guardian and securing the bulk of financial income appeared to be a failing conquest. Undaunted, Roland promised himself he would tackle each responsibility head-on. Until November 20th, his personal goals were put on the back burner.
Waking out of his slumber from a double shift the night before, a familiar trail of scrumptious aromas oozed from Erica's kitchen. Breakfast was Roland's meal of choice. Erica's personal house menu was unmatched; her specialties were garden omelets with a tenderized New York 12oz steak, a slab of Canadian bacon with crunchy baked hash browns, but today was his favorite meal. Roland burst through the lanky strands of goldish funkadelic beads used as an entrance door into the infamous kitchen. He was enchanted by the beautiful sounds of James Brown's “Living in America” resonated through the wooden cabinet analogue receiver. The hungry man sprinted to the closest seat inside the compacted kitchen.
Roland's well-prepared breakfast awaited. A hearty serving of blueberry hot cakes with maple honey trickled down the mountain of greatness. Savoring each chomp, a coffee mug filled with freshly squeezed orange juice galvanized his meal. The only thing missing was his daily dose of local misery disguised as the Georgia Sunshine newspaper.
An old, powder-green kitchen cabinet sat on the uneven hardwood floor. Four stove burners and one magical oven sweetened each meal. Hovering over the tired stove was a wooden rack securing old plates, pots, pans, cups, and utensils. Centered on the wooden kitchen table was a token of their unbreakable love, an often-replaced pink rose in a cracked mason jar. During the warmer seasons the married couple would pick flowers and roses from their fruitful garden. In the early thirties, Roland's grandfather was the first black man to build and own his home in a northern Atlanta suburban community. Passed down by blood, a hearty Southern touch continued to live in their modest home.
Standing by the kitchen calendar Erica asked, "Do. You. Know. What. Today. Is?" Roland had not the slightest interest in playing the guessing game. Last Friday it was Jeremiah's homecoming game. The week before it was Erica's mother's birthday. In Roland's mind, the only thing that mattered today was the delicious plate sitting in front of him.
The kitchen was the heart and soul of their home. Momma Janet used to utter those words before she passed away. Roland loved his mother dearly; she had a knack for combating his father’s strict rules and overbearing negative tones. If there wasn’t a beer being guzzled down his throat, Big Jerry, Roland’s father would spew his views about the man blocking him from his dreams and aspirations. “Only a fool would think the man gives two shits about a black man’s worries” it was Big Jerry’s favorite line whenever the news reported a social injustice. He unknowingly forced his beliefs onto his son but Roland strayed away from his ideology. Even as a child Roland knew he didn’t want to carry the same burden his dad traveled with until the day he died. Decades later, Roland, Erica, and Jeremiah shared splendid meals, an abundance of laughter, and countless family stories while sitting at the same kitchen table.
"Baby I know we are low on cash but we need a few things from the convenience store" Erica muttered in her husband's ear as she slipped him a folded paper with a list of items concealed inside.
"Let me guess, the usual; milk, orange juice, eggs and loaf of bread," Roland replied, stuffing the list in his navy blue work pant’s pocket.
Devouring the last of his drenched pancake, a swirl of maple honey delighted each bite. There was no mistaking Erica's greatness in the kitchen. Although she was unable to work the last few years, Roland made it known to his friends and family cooking was just one of her many talents.
"I'll stop at the convenience store on my way home my love," proclaimed the well-fed man.
Erica proudly dusted her flour-traced hands onto her pitch-black apron. Carefully avoiding her perturbed belly, the baby shifted forcefully inside of her. This pregnancy was different compared to the other two pregnancies that were unfortunate miscarriages. Miraculously reaching the final trimester, she felt her world merge with her husband’s. For the very first time, she felt their baby would make it to the due date. Whenever the married couple were in the comfort of their modest size bed, Roland felt the baby’s beautiful wrath, kicking his back. He was amazed to experience their precious child evolve inside the warmth of his wife's body.
Consumed with financial issues, Roland dreaded the workday that lied ahead of him, wishing he could have called out and spent quality time with Erica. But the bills were piling up. The bank wouldn't grant a third loan. Shifting those thoughts out of his mind he attempted to focus on today's task. Gaining one last whiff of Erica before surrendering to the tobacco factory, he invaded her space, swarming her neck with kisses. Abruptly he washed the stickiness off his hands before dabbing his once gluey mouth with a damp paper towel.
While Erica scrubbed the pile of dirty dishes her back was facing Roland's tall towering masculine physique, unscathed by her husband’s sudden presence she sang along to an infusion of soul and blues. Stretching his limber arms, his rugged hands crept under her apron where her curvy caramel hips resided. Bypassing her long dark brown kinky hair, Roland's full lips delivered one last kiss on the back of her slender neck. Peaking outside the kitchen window a foggy reflection of the two distorted their images. She carefully fell into his broad muscular chest the two embraced one another before his departure. Roland's raspy voice whispered into his wife's ear, "I love you baby."
Gliding down the stairs like a gazelle in the wildlife a tumbling echo traveled throughout the first floor of their home, a young lanky athletically built teenager appeared in the kitchen searching for something to munch on. Erica adopted her older sister’s only child Jeremiah. The passing of his mom weighted heavy on his heart. Cancer was to blame. Years of battling cancer came to an end when Jeremiah was nearly ten years old. Devoid of his father's presence, the mystery man never appeared at his son's basketball games, birthdays, christening, or baptism. The disappearing acts his father played throughout his life got tiresome. When he was sentenced to life in prison, Erica made it her personal mission to block any contact between the estranged father and Jeremiah.
The high top fade adolescent dressed in his private school uniform interrupted the lovely couple's intimate moment, "Good morning, what's for breakfast?"
Pausing their intimacy, Erica wrestled her way out of Roland's arms. Staring into her nephew’s eyes, she let out a mouthful "Breakfast? Look at the time. Jeremiah, if you don't hurry you'll end up late for school once again. Take this apple and get going."
The young man gazed at his uncle-in-law, silently pleading with him to intervene.
"Jay, how about this: I'll drop you off at school today. I can take the downtown highway before jumping back on the terrace route and get to the factory." A few inches away from a burning incent Roland quickly swiped his keys off the loop. Gathering & threw on his ashy black flight jacket over his faded maintenance uniform.
Before the two departed the kitchen, Erica hollered, "Jeremiah I don't want you hanging out with those gang banger friends after school." Roland gave Jeremiah a look of death.
"What gangbanger friends is your aunt talking about?"
"You know what, I'll take the bus, I don't feel like being lectured over some bullshit."
"Boy don't you curse in our house. Your aunt and I work hard to pay your tuition."
Erica and Roland covered half of Jeremiah's tuition. The other half was covered by a scholarship earned by his god-gifted talents in basketball.
"You consider selling cakes from home and cleaning up crap at a tobacco factory a job?"
Jeremiah stormed out of the house before Roland could scold him for his unruly behavior. Erica's she shook her head in disbelief. Grabbing his lunch bag, Roland gave his wife one last kiss before leaving. "Don't worry I'll talk some sense into him. He's a teenager. He doesn't mean what he just said."
It felt as if Roland stepped out into the frozen tundra. Atlanta's winter weather hit a record low. Tracking snow on his oil stained work boots, Roland spotted Erica's nephew a few houses down the block in his bright red book bag. Jumping in his pale white pickup truck he cranked the engine pulling past a small snow bank blocking the driveway enroot to the snowy roads. Passing his neighbor’s residential homes, the size of each house’s property seemed to grow exponentially. The broad lawns were covered in sheets of slush and ice. Swiping away the snow flurries that collected on the foggy windshield, he pulled over close to the curb. "Get in the car, it's way too cold to travel in this snow," shouted Roland. Fidgeting from the blistering cold, Jeremiah quietly surrendered.
Cruising past the suburban community, they entered bumper-to-bumper highway traffic. Jeremiah sat in his seat quieter than a church mouse. Glaring outside the passenger side window, the young man tried to ignore any signs of eye contact with his grizzly looking uncle.
"I know you don't want to hear what I have to say right now, but it's my duty as a man in your life to set you straight. Take it from someone who cares about your well being: that
Jeremiah sucked his teeth and rolled his eyes.
As the busy highway traffic accompanied a symphony of blearing car horns, Roland skipped past a few cars before slowing down in the emergency lane. Suddenly clutching the emergency break, he gave Jeremiah a piece of his mind.
"Listen, I get it; you're a teenager and you think you know it all, but if you disrespect my wife again you're going to lose a few teeth." Taken back by his uncle's approach, the young man broke his silence "I'm sorry unc.” Roland signaled out of the emergency lane.
"So what is this gang banger stuff your aunt is talking about? You do know you're stressing your poor aunt out; the last thing she needs during this pregnancy is more stress."
"Aunt Erica is just worried because I have friends that don't look or act like the preppy kids at my school. They're regular boys from around the projects. We play ball some weekends. She thinks they're hoodlums because she eavesdropped on my phone call. My boy Rocky was talking about doing graffiti, break dancing, and rapping downtown by the group homes. She keeps telling me if I hang around them I’m going to end up in jail just like my biological father.
"Uh huh that explains a lot. I'll talk to her about that later tonight."
Roland could relate, as a teenager he use to visit his father's side of the family who lived in the projects. Some of his fondest memories as a youth were spent bonding with his rambunctious cousins playing stickball in the middle of the street until the night hours passed. Whenever they broke a car window the group of cousins would scatter. Oftentimes they attempted to peer pressure Roland car jacking nice cars in well off communities. No one was there to supervise the young boys; rather, no one cared to guide them during their teenage years. As they grew older majority of his cousins got caught up in the wrong crowds, which lead to jail or death. Roland wished he could have saved his cousins but he was too young, luckily he lived with his grandfather once his father passed away. Grandpa Pat taught him many traits. The one trait that propelled him to become a productive citizen in life were taking care of one's responsibility no matter how bleak life reared its ugly head.
Roland's lack of focus nearly caused him to drive straight into a snow bank.
"Whoa that was a close call,” uttered Roland.
"Damn Mother Nature almost took us out!" replied Jeremiah as he clutched onto his seatbelt.
“Do you need to get anything else off your chest? It's just us two I won't say anything to your aunt." The young man was reluctant to spew anything else until his uncle peered into his brown eyes.
"I've been going through a lot lately with the basketball coach.
"What do you mean?"
"I don't know why but he wants so much out of me."
"Well you are their best player and this is your senior year."
"But I just don't get it. All of these recruits come to my game its just so much pressure. I just need a break."
"Why don't you take a day or two off of practice so you can clear your head?"
"I doubt coach Greg will allow me to do that. He always says if Willis Reed can play with a broken bone during the NBA finals, we can play through minor injuries and issues."
"I love what coach Greg has instilled in you, but you'll never make it to Madison Square Garden if your head isn't in the game."
Inching closer to Jeremiah's school the two saw a graffiti mural on the side of a convenient store that read "Power Lies In The People" in purple and gold letters.
"You're a young man and believe it or not I once was a young buck so I understand what you're going through," Slowly stroking his beard, sprinkled with a few patches of gray. Unconsciously nodding to his uncle’s preaching about his glory days, Jeremiah surfed through the local radio stations.
"Maybe you’re going through a phase but you heard yourself in the house, if you don't want to end up baking cakes or cleaning a factory I suggest you hit those books and keep shooting that rock."
The two burst out in a stream of laughter. Roland was great at lightening the mood. He knew which buttons to push when he was around his nephew in law. The two fists bumped one another as a sign of a peace treaty. Nearing closer to Jeremiah’s private school, the young man turned the volume up to his favorite rap station.
"No no no! You know the rules no rap music before school or on Sunday mornings."
"Unc you're so old school."
Roland changed the station to what he considered an appropriate tune to start the morning. Delighted by the soothing vocals of his wife's favorite song he began to reminisce when the two danced the night away on their first anniversary. It just hit him like a linebacker creeping passed the offensive line: today is their anniversary. Feeling foolish, Roland’s mind began to race.
"You hear that, young man? This is some real music." Singing along to the song, he swayed back and forth attempting to hit each note as he continued off key, "It's our anniversary, it's our anniversary. See this is some real music, baby making music just ask your aunty."
"Seriously? That's way more than I want to know Unc!" said Jeremiah as his faced scrunched up in disgust.
“Oh hush up! It’s your aunty and my anniversary. I’m trying to get in the mood.”
“Well shouldn’t you already be in the mood? How do you forget Aunt Erica’s favorite day of the year?”
“Are you giving me advice on women? When you reach my age, responsibilities and life come first and everything else comes second.”
Deep down Roland knew Jeremiah was right. How dare he forget the day that formed their union. His masculinity and pride wouldn’t allow him to acknowledge his stepson’s rightful claim. Pulling into the school parking lot, Roland gave his nephew a fist bump as the young man embarked on his school day.
"Thanks for the ride unc, I'll see you later tonight."
"Anytime." Jeremiah trotted off with his head raised high. Roland slowly rolled down his window and yelled out "Good luck with school." As the milky white snow flakes continued to fall the youthful teen turned around shooting his uncle a wave.
Swamped with a series of tiring task, during his afternoon shift, Roland realized hed rather watch his deceased childhood dog come back to life and die again rather than spend another minute at the factory on his anniversary. He couldn't function at work. He kept thinking to himself, how he could forget their anniversary? Suspending Roland's running thoughts, Leroy the other maintenance man at the job site came down to surprise him with good news.
"Just got the word from the big boss upstairs we are getting a dollar raise" grinning from ear to ear Leroy the gentle older fellow dawning a buck tooth smile was overjoyed by their kind gesture.
"I've always loved supervisor Bigsby he has a big ol heart. Don't he?"
Dropping his damp yellow sponge into a muddy bucket of water Roland's only reply was a "whoopty doo".
"Why are you so green on this rare winter day? Aren't you always Mr. Positivity?"
"Pardon my manors Leroy. Today is the old lady and I anniversary."
"Oh wow! You must have a big surprise waiting for the Mrs. when you blow this joint.
Roland's mind took off. He began to panic. Realization kicked in. The eternal pain of a million rugged bricks falling on his bare feet tugged at his heart. Roland didn't have a gift or any plans for his leading lady.
"Actually I don't have anything planned or a gift. I'm a damn failure."
"Don't be so hard on yourself buddy. My motto has always been keeping it simple. Women love things like a bottle of red wine and a great conversation."
As cheesy as it sounded, Leroy was right. But it was hard to take relationship advice from an old man that was never married or hardly held a conversation about a current female companion. Overwhelmed with life, picking up extra hours to cover the bills finally took a toll on Roland's mental psyche. Perhaps the on going prenatal issues Erica and Roland dealt with over the years have clouded his memory. Quitting his only source of income was never an option but today he pondered a less stressful life.
During a lousy lunch break Roland yanked off his long sleeve uniform top attempting to free his self of the suffocating tobacco smell that reeked of a chain smoker's clothing. Working over two decades at the tobacco factory he never found the courage to smoke a cancer stick. Though he worked around tobacco he couldn't stand the awful stench. Seated on the ugly brown leather break couch he enjoyed the silence of a deserted employee lounge. Confined inside the four walls painted sky blue Roland peeked over the round stainless steel coffee table where the local newspaper sat dying for him to peal back its pages. A national pledge to capture illegal guns from inner cities was plastered on the front page of the newspaper "Take Back Our Country." A photo of Uncle Sam prying assault riffles from young black and brown men.
Before Roland could enjoy his peanut butter and jelly sandwich an annoying voice screeched into the air as the break door opened. "Hey there is a spill on the second floor that needs to be cleaned ASAP. Oh yea the third floor bathroom is clogged get to that as well. I had a bean burrito that didn't agree with my belly." Mr. Bigsby, the head supervisor of the tobacco factory could have cared less if Roland was on his lunch break. Nor did he care if the third floor was Roland's work area, which it wasn't. The pop belly scrooge look a like never referred to Roland by his name. If the value of job security meant nothing to him perhaps he would have strangled the life out of his scummy supervisor. Today was a special day and Mr. Bigsby couldn't rob him of the joy that represents the union he shares with Erica.
"I'll get to it after my lunch break boss." Submitting to his work superior Roland flashed a fake smile the size of a jumbotron. As he began to ponder his work situation he thought to his self perhaps Jeremiah sentiments were true. How can a man work for someone who looks down on others because of their position of power? Maybe Jeremiah was right a job cleaning up after others was no true job. Quickly scoffing down his sandwich he realized his lunch break was minutes away from completion.
Around a quarter to eight o'clock the tired maintenance man's shift was minutes away from completion. The second half of the workday was no different from the first half. He cleaned up spills around the large conveyor belts, horrid bathrooms, and trails of slush dragged inside the first floor lobby.
Exhaling a sigh of relief Roland quickened his steps as he gathered his belongings from his locker.
"Oh look who's in a rush to go home,” whispered Leroy. "Remember the Mrs. can only have one glass of wine." The two work buddies laughed their way outside of the work factory.
Before departing ways Roland clang onto his opened driver side door and shouted out "Leroy make sure you get home safe the roads are pretty ugly." The old noble man nodded his head and waved goodbye. Drifting into the dark night the lonely street lights guided tired drivers home across downtown Atlanta past the inner cites and the gated communities.
"Is that everything my brother?" Stated Michael the frail convenient store clerk.
Every so often Roland would stop by the store after work and pick up a few items for the house. Michael and Roland weren't childhood pals that met up for drinks at a local bar but the two men grew fond of one another through their brief conversations. Michael's voice always threw Roland off. A southern white man who was born up north owned a heavy italiano accent. The swift talking man reminded Roland of an actor from an old Mafioso movie.
"Yea I hope I remembered everything eggs, bread, orange juice, milk, pink roses and a bottle of red wine. If I forgot anything my lady will send me back out in this snow."
"Tell Erica I said hello. I haven't seen her beautiful face in some time."
"Aye you watch your mouth" the two men chuckled as Roland gazed at the front cover of the town newspaper.
"There goes your nephew again. He's one of a kind don't you say? My frank opinion, I think the kid is going to the pros."
"Well we shall see. With god on his side anything is possible. My main concern is getting him out of high school."
"There you go being modest again. I call it how my two green eyes see it, and the kid has a bright future."
"You know what I'm worried about on this ugly night? Celebrating my anniversary with my lady."
"Ah I should of know today was the big day. You know what the roses are on the house. Just make sure you tell the lovely lady it's from me." Michael flared a perverted smile on his face while Roland smirked at his inappropriate joke before saying his goodbye for the night.
Stepping into the shivering forecast, powerful winds began to whip across what seemed as a deserted city. Eager to see his love's swollen belly and fluffy cheeks, Roland anticipated Erica waiting on his arrival in her sheer robe. Placing the bags on the passenger seat, a flash of flickering lights caught his attention. Inquisitively peaking back a confrontation summoned his attention. Morally conflicted, Roland was in conscious bind most good-hearted individuals feared. His mind told him to go home but his heart told him to intervene.
Departing from his truck he tracked through the field of delicate snow wondering to his self why he choose to act on good faith on the most important day of the year. He thought to his self it could be Jeremiah or one of his friends in danger. As he got closer to the altercation the situation became clear. There were two state officers on top of a helpless young white man while two other young civilians (both young black men) watched helplessly. One of the witnesses wore a dark red jacket and the other wore an ashy navy blue jacket. Both young men attempted to plead with the troopers, but to no avail. A few feet away from the scene Roland's worn down work boots were damp from the snow that covered his feet from his mini journey. Seeing the poor young man's hands cuffed behind his back irritated Roland. Apprehended with secure force nonetheless the state officers continued to pounce on the defenseless young man who looked deathly battered.
"Back the fuck up,” yelled the lanky state officer as he squirmed back to his feet while the husky officer lie on top of the young handcuffed citizen.
"No let my friend go" "He doesn't deserve this" simultaneously pronounced the two adolescents.
What seemed to be an erratic decision done by a rookie officer of the law the slenderize officer pulled his gun from the holster, fumbling the gun into a thick pile of snow. Frozen by a series of disturbing events, Roland stood by as an innocent bystander.
"You three niggers don't move, you're all going to jail tonight" shouted the hotheaded officer. Quickly realizing he couldn't control the situation without his weapon he made a move to regain his gun. Catching wind of the situation the other officer who owned a husky built attempted to get up but the young man in the red jacket quickly jumped on him. The young man in blue scooped the gun from the snow and shot the rambunctious officer inches away from his heart. Tossing the deadly weapon in Roland's direction the young men left their friend on the floor cuffed while they fled the scene. Glued to the snow, with blood splattered all over his jacket Roland stood their befuddled by the rather sudden chain of events.
Silence rang out as gushes of dark red blood oozed from the dying officer, seeping into the pearly white snow. Peering his head directly into the sky, lonely stars guided his mind past the crime scene and back into the comfort of his lovely home. Disrupted by a prudent voice Roland was jolted into reality.
"Freeze! Don't you move motherfucker" the husky officer's barrel of the gun was drawn in Roland's puzzled face. That night was the first time Roland's wrist faced the distill taste of medal handcuffs. Showered by dove like snowflakes dwindling from up above onto his apprehended state, he was slammed on the hood of the state officer’s car. As his head melted the tender snow Roland attempted to squint out the corner of his bruised right eye only to see a graffiti painting on the side of a building scribbled in bright red bubble lettering “Equality For Who?”
Kofi Antwi: "I am a graduate of St. Joseph's MFA program. With my writing I seek to find a home for readers who find refuge in reflective narratives of black and brown communities. When I’m able to connect with readers through resemblances of self, fragments of those who I oppose, and episodes of love, I believe my duty as a writer has been served. In my writing there is a conscious placement of blurring lines and breaking conventional forms."