On the Come Up(3)


“He once went from As to Cs,” Mrs. Murray says, “but he turned it around. Now look at him. Graduated from Markham with honors.”

He also moved back home this summer. He couldn’t find a decent job, and as of three weeks ago, he makes pizzas for minimum wage. It doesn’t give me much to look forward to.

I’m not knocking him. At all. It’s dope that he graduated. Nobody in our mom’s family has a college degree, and Grandma, our dad’s mom, loves to tell everyone that her grandson was “magnum cum laude.” (That is so not how you say it, but good luck telling Grandma that.) Mrs. Murray won’t hear that though.

“I’m gonna improve my grades, I swear,” I tell her. “I just gotta do this battle first and see what happens.”

She nods. “I understand. I’m sure your mom will too.”

She tosses me my phone.


I head to the hallway. Sonny and Malik lean against the lockers. Sonny types away on his phone. Malik fiddles with his camera. He’s always in filmmaker mode. A few feet away, the school security guards, Long and Tate, keep an eye on them. Those two are always on some mess. Nobody wants to say it, but if you’re black or brown, you’re more likely to end up on their radar, even though Long himself is black.

Malik glances up from his phone. “You okay, Bri?”

“Go on now,” Long calls. “Don’t be lollygagging around here.”

“Goddamn, can’t we talk for a second?” I ask.

“You heard him,” says Tate, thumbing toward the doors. He’s got stringy blond hair. “Get outta here.”

I open my mouth, but Sonny goes, “Let’s just go, Bri.”

Fine. I follow Sonny and Malik toward the doors and glance at my phone.

It’s 4:45, and Hype still hasn’t called.

A city bus ride and a walk home later, nothing.

I get to my house at exactly 5:09.

Jay’s Jeep Cherokee is in our driveway. Gospel music blares in the house. It’s one of those upbeat songs that leads to a praise break at church and Grandma running around the sanctuary, shouting. It’s embarrassing as hell.

Anyway, Jay only plays those kinda songs on Saturdays when it’s cleaning day to make me and Trey get up and help. It’s hard to cuss as somebody sings about Jesus, so I get up and clean without a word.

Wonder why she’s playing that music now.

A chill hits me soon as I step in the house. It’s not as cold as outside—I can take my coat off—but my hoodie’s gonna stay on. Our gas got cut off last week, and with no gas, we don’t have heat. Jay put an electric heater in the hallway, but it only takes a bit of the chill out of the air. We have to heat water in pots on the electric stove if we wanna take hot baths and we sleep with extra covers on our beds. Some bills caught up with my mom and Trey, and she had to ask the gas company for an extension. Then another one. And another one. They got tired of waiting for their money and just cut it off.

It happens.

“I’m home,” I call from the living room.

I’m about to toss my backpack and my coat onto the couch, but Jay snaps from wherever she is, “Hang that coat up and put that backpack in your room!”

Goddamn, how does she do that? I do what she said and follow the music to the kitchen.

Jay takes two plates out of a cabinet—one for me, one for her. Trey won’t be home for a while. Jay’s still in her “Church Jay” look that’s required as the church secretary—the ponytail, the knee-length skirt, and the long-sleeved blouse that covers her tattoos and the scars from her habit. It’s Thursday, so she’s got classes tonight as she goes after that social work degree— she wants to make sure other people get the help she didn’t back when she was on drugs. For the past few months, she’s been in school part-time, taking classes several nights a week. She usually only has time to either eat or change, not both. Guess she chose to eat tonight.

“Hey, Li’l Bit,” she says all sweet, like she didn’t just snap on me. Typical. “How was your day?”

It’s 5:13. I sit at the table. “He hasn’t called yet.”

Jay sets one plate in front of me and one beside me. “Who?”

“DJ Hype. I submitted my name for a spot in the Ring, remember?”

“Oh, that.”

That, like it’s no big deal. Jay knows I like to rap, but I don’t think she realizes that I want to rap. She acts like it’s the latest video game I’m into.

“Give him time,” she says. “How was ACT prep? Y’all did practice tests today, right?”

“Yep.” That’s all she cares about these days, that damn test.

“Well?” she says, like she’s waiting for more. “How’d you do?”

“All right, I guess.”

“Was it hard? Easy? Were there any parts you struggled through?”

Here we go with the interrogation. “It’s just a practice test.”

“That will give us a good idea of how you’ll do on the real test,” Jay says. “Bri, this is serious.”

“I know.” She’s told me a million times.

Jay puts pieces of chicken on the plates. Popeyes. It’s the fifteenth. She just got paid, so we’re eating good. Jay swears though that Popeyes isn’t as good here as it is in New Orleans. That’s where she and Aunt Pooh were born. I can still hear New Orleans in Jay’s voice sometimes. Like when she says “baby,” it’s as if molasses seeped into the word and breaks it down into more syllables than it needs.

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