It was a red-hot summer day. Hazy and humid. The air was so mufucking tight, I damn near couldn’t breathe. It was the summer of 1980 and I had just moved to Fairfield Court Projects after my moms had gotten us evicted from our apartment in Matthew Heights. I was sitting on the front porch, reading Negro by Langston Hughes, when I spotted a bow-legged girl standing across the street, sucking on her thumb. She was wearing a red plastic jacket and red ballerina shoes. Her hair was rolled up in a halter top and her skinny legs were shiny, as if she had a whole bottle of petroleum jelly on them or something.
My little brother Keon, who was eight years old at the time, yelled out, “Who dat girl with the greasy legs and hot plastic on?”
Man, I laughed so hard, I almost peed on myself. The girl caught us laughing at her and from the distance I caught her rolling her eyes. I yelled out to her, “Yo, shorty girl, you better be careful, they might just pop out your head!”
She threw us an evil stare, and then dropped her stinky thumb from her mouth. “Yo, you ape looking fool; I know you ain’t laughing at me with your big, black, ugly self! And my name is Starr, for your information,” she shot back at me. Starr stood there rolling her neck around, with both hands placed on her imagination.
“And if I am, what you gone do about it?” I asked.
She sucked her teeth. “Call the zoo and tell him Godzilla escaped!”
“You better go take off that hot plastic jacket before you die from heat exhaustion. And if that’s your imagination, you sure as heck ain’t got much of one,” I spat. The next thing I know, Starr spun around like she was about to bust a Michael Jackson dance move. Instead, she bent all the way over until her fingers were touching her toes, then she came up swiftly with her right hand and smacked her butt, pow.
“Kiss my ass, you big black gorilla!” she screamed at me.
I couldn’t believe my ears; the chick had the audacity to call me a big black gorilla. I had never been called out of my name by anyone other than my moms. “Look here, shorty girl. For real, I wasn’t even laughing at you, so you need to just chill out!” Starr wasn’t one to back down easily, she kept the insults flowing.
“Oh, don’t get scared now, with your ugly self!” she carried on, her neck spinning around like the little white chick in The Exorcist. I let out a huge sigh, then bit my bottom lip.
“Shorty, I ain’t scared of you. I just don’t won’t any trouble. So, don’t start none, won’t be none!” I warned her. Next thing I know, Starr jumped down from her porch, picked up something from the ground, and made a tight fist. I stood with my arms folded across my chest. For a minute, neither of us said a word, we just locked eyes.
Okay, I’ll admit it. From where I was sitting, she was kind of cute. Truth be told, if ever there had been a beauty contest, Starr would have been named Beauty and I, the Beast. Nevertheless, I wasn’t about to let that skinny, high yellow, want-to-be pageant chick from across the street know that she was indeed the shit!
Suddenly, Starr wound up her right arm as if she was about to throw a pitch in the World Series. She let go off a huge rock, almost smacking me in the head. I ducked and the rock slammed against our screen door. That did it! Enough was enough! I figured I had to say or do something to defend myself because all the little heathens on my new block were outside, and they were all pointing at me and chanting, “Gorilla-Gorilla, Gorilla-Gorilla!” They paraded back and forth.
Man, I was so mad, I had smoke coming out of my nose. With all the red she was sporting, and the temperature blazing at ninety-five degrees, I knew that I had just met the devil. I slammed my book shut and headed across the street. Yeah, I was planning to fight a girl. Keon ran after me, swinging his arms wildly, and yelled at me.
“Come back, Bilal, forget her, man!” he pleaded with me. I refused to back down from Starr so I continued in her direction. The faster I walked, the louder the chanting became.
“Gorilla, Gorilla!” some of the kids shouted, while others ran around in circles, kicking up dirt as they screamed to the top of their lungs. “It’s a fight, it’s a fight!” the little bastards instigated. But, like the true soldier she was, Starr didn’t budge; she stood her ground on her porch. She continued talking junk, rolling her neck and pointing her fingers at me.
“I ain’t scared of you, and if you come up on my porch, I’mma beat your big, black ugly tail,” she threatened. As I marched over to her, I was still trying to think of a comeback, but I couldn’t think of anything that could top an eleven-year-old girl’s invitation to kiss her ass.
Suddenly, something stopped me dead in my tracks. To this day, I still don’t know what it was. I made a tight fist with both of my hands, and then I slowly turned around to face the loud-mouth instigators that were trailing behind me. I needed to silence their heathen asses once and for all. I took in a deep breath, exhaled, then I let go of the ugliest face that I could possibly make.
“The next mutherfucker that calls me Gorilla, better call me Gorilla Black!” I yelled out.
The next thing I knew, everybody took off running as if they had seen a ghost. Later that night before we went to bed, Keon told me that when I had turned to face the crowd that I had fire in my eyes.
The next morning I woke up to the sound of Momma screaming like she had gone plumb crazy. “Come on down. Time to eat!” she yelled. I grabbed Keon from the top bunk and we hurried downstairs to see what was up. I was a bit surprised when I turned the corner, only to find Momma standing at the gas stove in her nightgown. She was stirring a pot of grits with a big wooden spoon and puffing on a Salem cigarette. I grabbed a chair and sat down.
“Moms, why you fixing grits in the summertime?” I asked her.
Momma continued circling the pot of grits. “Boy, stop your goddamn complaining! You better be glad that I got up to fix you anything!” she snapped at me. “I wanted to make a big breakfast so we could celebrate being in our new place,’’ she explained, as if moving from Matthew Heights to the projects was something to jump up and down about.
Matthew Heights was a working-class poor neighborhood, nothing extravagant but definitely one step up from the pj’s. So, I was angry with Momma for losing her job and causing us to get evicted. Momma used to be a certified nursing assistant at Retreat Hospital. She had been on the job for five years, but she kept being disciplined for showing up at work drunk. Her supervisor gave her a thousand chances, until one night Moms was supposed to be giving a patient a sponge bath, and she fell asleep drunk with her hand smacked dead between the old lady’s pussy. Mom was so drunk that her hand literally had to be pried away from the old lady’s coochie. Not only was she fired, but social services was called in. To make matters worse, the old lady’s family threatened to sue Momma and the hospital because they claimed the old lady was traumatized and had panic attacks whenever somebody tried to wash her.
After Momma lost her job, she couldn’t keep up with the rent and ended up three months behind. The landlord was willing to work with her but she wasn’t putting up much effort. Instead of searching for a job, she sat at home and played loud music all day and night like some lovesick teenager. So, after being late with the rent the fourth time in less than a year, and for having a hundred-signature petition signed by our neighbors, we were thrown out on our butt like yesterday’s trash. Momma couldn’t understand why the neighbors filed a petition to get us evicted. The petition stated that she was too loud and ghetto, and a real nuisance to the community. They were right; over the years Momma had gotten out of control. I don’t know why she acted the way she did, ’cause she was raised in the church down south and had only moved to Richmond after having me. Momma was just a naïve country bumpkin from Birmingham, Alabama, but for some odd reason she cursed like a sailor and drank like three.
Excerpted from Gorilla Black by Seven. Copyright © 2008 by SEVEN. Excerpted by permission of One World/Ballantine, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.