The House on Peralta Street
Lawrence and Myra McCoy were walking on Grand Ave at just past 10:00 when someone materialized out of the park, pistol drawn. They gave him the money they had on them. It might have been a relatively harmless encounter if there hadn’t been a sound down the street, a firework or a car backfiring, and, high on coke as the police later confirmed him to be, the robber panicked and shot Myra in the chest.
“You fucking asshole!” Lawrence yelled at the back of their fleeing assailant, then he knelt down to hold his wife. She was convulsing. Blood soaked her shirt and came out of her mouth. She didn’t have the presence of mind to meet his eyes; she had nothing but primal panic in her own. It was a moment to be forever tattooed in Lawrence’s memory. He had been so protective of her. No husband would ever want to see a look like that in his wife’s eyes. She might not have even known she was dying, but she that she did, and suddenly.
So ended their marriage, a time often interspersed with much happiness for both she and Lawrence. Now was a new beginning, just Lawrence and his daughter Wanda.
It happened so close to their home: it was a busy street that he and Myra normally walked fearlessly. If only they’d stayed for one more drink, one more go at the bathroom, one more goodbye. But it happened, and Lawrence, a construction worker and amateur architect, could only admit that the city had gotten the better of him. This kind of thing happened in Oakland, even to white people like himself. The robber had been black. Lawrence found himself abruptly consumed by a normally dormant racism: black people looked the same to him, threatening and pitiless, faceless and nameless, the stereotype you weren’t supposed to admit to.
Lawrence had always had the worst luck. Chalk up another defeat, though he promised himself, and an uncontrollably crying Wanda, that it would be the last. If any one tried anything on his little girl he would kill them, no question, no trial. Summary execution.
A couple weeks later, on a whim, he bought a lottery ticket. He had never played before. He picked numbers at random. How surprised he was to learn the next day that he had won. He was to be $400,000 richer, an inconceivable sum. God works in mysterious, even cruel ways. Lawrence had no use for this money, though, he told himself, this too could be a life-altering moment. Real estate was considered a happy investment in the Bay Area these days, and perhaps especially in Oakland.
Lawrence quit his job and spent hours, days, weeks, searching the far reaches of the city for revenge. The worse the better.
The house on Peralta Street called to him, engulfed as the neighborhood around it was in crack addicts and gang activity. The neighborhood was known as the Lower Bottoms. It was just what Lawrence was looking for: confrontation. As for Wanda, living there would educate her on a side of life few girls like her had ever glimpsed. In the end, thanks to the demographics of change, perhaps Lawrence would come out victorious. He would be the first of many to come. God would see what he was made of. He would never be a victim again. He promised himself this, fully aware of his irrational futility. This would be the beginning of a monumental adventure. Wanda would just be along for the ride.
It was her dad banging on the door, the most reliable alarm clock that had ever been invented.
“Wake up Wanda. Time to get ready.”
“Okay!” she called out, and he left. She thought about staying in bed a little while longer, just to spite him. The noise of the street outside, constant, all day and all night, had ceased to disturb her after the first few weeks. The yelling, the cars, the fights, they all blended into the background. At first she couldn’t sleep nights. Now she could.
She and her dad had been here two weeks, and there was still an unreality about it. Only a few miles from where they’d lived before, yet it might as well have been a different dimension. She was afraid to go outside. She and her dad were alone out here. Apparently Myra’s death had not been enough torture.
Eventually she got out of bed and got dressed. She packed her middle school textbooks and homework into her backpack and went out into the rest of the house. Lawrence was finishing up breakfast.
Wanda sat at the kitchen table and her father brought her a plate of bacon and eggs.
“Eat up,” he said.
She ate in silence while her father bustled around in the little parlor attached to the kitchen, where the sink was. The bathroom too was divided: the toilet was alone in a little alcove at the rear of the house while the sink and mirror were in the center. These old Victorian houses were all out of order, Lawrence had told her. Only something further to get used to, she’d assured herself.
Lawrence sat down across from her with coffee, toast, and an orange.
“Why did you bring me here?” she asked. This was about as appropriate a time as any for such a question.
“I told you already,” he said. “It’s an investment.”
“Investment in what?”
“Money. What else?”
“But no one around here has any.”
“Sure they do, we just don’t see them. They all stay indoors, like you. It’s only the street folk out there all the time that you’re talking about.”
“But it’s so weird,” she pleaded, afraid she would, again, lose the argument.
“Why? Because we’re white?”
“Well… why else?”
“Don’t think about it like that, Wanda. There’s tons of people who would never see a neighborhood like this in their lives and still think they know how the world works. Think of it as a learning experience.”
She didn’t know how to answer this. Maybe he was unaware of who she was, or maybe this was about something else, and he didn’t care about her at all.
She finished the rest of her meal, then left the kitchen, brushed her teeth and combed her hair, and Lawrence drove her to school in Berkeley, the same one she’d been at since her mother’s death. It was a relief being around people who looked like her, who didn’t regard her with scary eyes.
He’d completed a few cosmetic repairs to the second floor of the house, where he and Wanda lived, before they’d moved in, just to make it livable. He knew it was the least he could do. The poor girl was a real trooper. She’d rolled quite ably through the recent series of brutal punches life had thrown at her. Like him, she missed Myra, though sometimes when she reiterated this sentiment Lawrence had the feeling she was digging at him, at who he wasn’t and never would be. In truth he was a little, irrationally, afraid of her. Bringing her to the Lower Bottoms might well lead to strife between them that would last far longer than her next five or six years before she went to college.
Oh well, he told himself, it was simply what he’d wanted to do. Once this neighborhood was gentrified and the house fixed up he’d have a sweet little nest egg to leave her. And she could use a little more character too. To hell with shielding your children from danger. Let them live with it and grow stronger.
The next big project would be the foundation. Since the house was over a century old it had been built far prior to the technological advances and insurance requirements meant to deal with earthquakes, for example. The foundation was made of brick, notoriously unreliable in a seismic event.
He knew how to do it, but it would take a lot of work. Besides that his tools, and his person, were under constant surveillance by the neighborhood junkies, who were always on the lookout for something to steal. He and his house were a fruit tree loaded with ripe, tantalizing treats. He would have to keep his things carefully locked up on the occasions when he had to leave the house. He would try to do so as sparingly as possible. Beyond that he would get a dog. Wanda would love it, and the two of them could walk it. It would have to be a mean looking dog too. The neighborhood demanded as much.
He spent a few days digging a trench around the house to unearth the foundation. He would have to lift the house up so he could get at its moorings. This whole thing would probably cost him $20,000. He would work efficiently and make sure he was always using his brain. He talked sometimes to the people who walked past on the sidewalk, and oftentimes they were friendly and welcoming. Some of them seemed to consider him a guest, an interloper who perhaps signified more prosperous years ahead. Maybe they could see what the experts had started talking about: that white people were coming to the hood to fix up the dilapidated old houses and drive up property values. Lawrence wasn’t the only one, after all.
One day he was out front working on the trench when he heard something peculiar: a white voice saying his name.
“My God, is that Lawrence McCoy?” the voice asked.
Lawrence looked up and wiped the sweat from his eyes. A tall man with black hair plaited into a pony tail was standing at his locked fence, smiling at him. He was with a good-looking woman, also white, and also smiling. Lawrence didn’t know her but the man he did, though he couldn’t place his name.
“Who’s that?” Lawrence asked, dropping his shovel and approaching the gate, producing his keys.
“It’s Abbot Moss. Remember? We were on the PTA together at Arts Magnet.”
That was Wanda’s elementary school. Lawrence remembered little from those meetings.
“Hey how about that? How the hell are you?” Lawrence asked, opening the gate.
Abbot and his woman (Wife? Girlfriend? Lawrence couldn’t recall her) came onto his property and Lawrence shut and locked the gate behind them.
“I’m fine, just fine,” Abbot replied. “We’re just taking in the scenery.”
The three of them shared an ironic laugh.
“You live around here?” Lawrence asked.
“We do. We’re over on 12th and Willow.”
“Old Victorian? Fixing it up?”
“You know it.”
“Man, a lot of work, isn’t it?”
The three stood a moment awkwardly.
“How’s your wife?” Abbot ventured, an inevitable question of old acquaintances, and one which Lawrence always feared to answer.
“She’d dead,” he said.
“Oh my God!” said the woman and Abbot together.
“Killed in a robbery,” Lawrence continued.
“I’m so sorry,” Abbot said.
“Two days later I won the lottery. That’s why I’m here.”
“How long have you been here?” asked the unidentified woman.
“About a month.”
“What are you doing now?” Abbott said.
“Working on the foundation. We’ve got to replace it.”
“Yeah, you and everyone else.”
“What, did you think you’d come here alone?”
“You know, the trailblazers.”
“Look,” Abbot said, smiling, reaching into his pocket and producing his wallet. “Here’s my card. We’ve got an e-mail list. Send me an e-mail. We have work parties. Twenty of us working at a time, taking turns with each other’s houses. You’d be surprised how much you can accomplish.”
“Huh,” Lawrence offered.
“We have dinner parties and brunches together too. You’re just the man to join the fun.”
“Don’t thank me. Just stay in touch. It’s nice to know you aren’t out here by yourself.”
Lawrence took the card and looked at it: “Abbot Moss, freelance designer. Thank you,” he repeated.
“We’ll let you get back to it,” said Abbot. “It was good to see you, and I’m so sorry about Myra.”
“Thanks,” Lawrence said, “and likewise.”
He let Abbot and the woman out, then waved to them until they’d left his field of vision.
“Bitch ass motherfucker!” Lawrence heard from somewhere indistinct. “I want my money! Not this piddling shit.”
Lawrence looked at Abbot’s card, crumpled it up, and dropped it into the trash can. Then, sweating again, he got back to work.
That Saturday Lawrence woke Wanda in the morning, as he always did, and told her that they were going to get a dog.
“Would that help you feel more at home?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I want a dog.”
“Anyway we need one. I have to go to Home Depot a lot, and it doesn’t do to leave the fort undefended.”
“We’ve never had a dog before.”
“That’s because we never owned our own house before.”
Wanda finished her cereal and took the bowl into the side parlor. She washed her dishes. When she came back into the kitchen Lawrence was smiling at her.
“You know I love you, right?” he said.
“I love you very much. More than you’ll ever know. I’m never going to let anything bad happen to you.”
She, a little angry, blurted out the first words that came to her mind: “What about mom?”
His smile became a serious slant.
“Please don’t blame me for that.”
“I don’t,” she rejoined, perhaps contradicting herself.
“I couldn’t stop it. In Oakland it happens all the time.”
“Especially around here it does.”
“If anyone around here attacks you I’ll beat the shit out of them.”
He sounded like he meant it. Sadly this did not make her feel any safer.
“Come on,” he rejoined after a few seconds. “Get dressed. We’ll go to the SPCA.”
She went into her room to do as she’d been told.
“Bitch ass motherfucker,” she heard from outside. “Ain’t no one want you here with that shit!”
“I’m gonna grow up with a sewer mouth because of them,” she muttered to herself.
She came out of her room in jeans and a sweatshirt. Lawrence was waiting for her.
“It’s in Berkeley,” he said unhelpfully. “Come on.”
They got into Lawrence’s ’95 Ford pickup and left the neighborhood. Wanda stared out the window at the passing scenery. There was a part of her that liked looking at her new neighborhood. How rough, alive, and dark it was. She was afraid of it, but it was everywhere. Growing up on Grand Ave she’d never had any idea how much worse it could get. But now she knew places like this were omnipresent in Oakland, and a lot of other places too. On the freeway you hardly notice, but those rooftops you see passing by harbor secrets neither she nor any of her friends could have imagined. Some of them had been over to her new house. They’d seemed as surprised and frightened as she’d been.
They picked out a black pitt mix named Caesar. The SPCA employee said he would be a good guard dog, but that he also had a good attitude, was house-broken, and knew a few basic commands. He looked scarier than he was, which was why they’d had such a problem finding a home for him. She sat in the back with him on the drive home. When they got there Lawrence asked if she wanted to take him for his first walk. She wasn’t sure she liked this idea, and the look on her face showed it.
“Come on lady,” said Lawrence. “You’re going to have to face it eventually.”
Wanda knew he was right. She took the dog’s face in her hands and kissed him between the eyes.
“I love him dad,” she said.
“I’m glad. I’m sorry Wanda but I’m gonna need your help with this thing. You can’t just stay in the house all the time.”
Hearing him express this kind of sentiment, which he’d done several times and with increasing obstinacy, made her unsure of herself, and how to talk to him. She knew what he wanted of her, but was afraid she couldn’t rise to meet his demands.
Lawrence watched her a moment, then put on Caesar’s choke collar and leash.
“Wanda, you want this dog? Then come with me and prove it.”
She got to her feet and followed her father out the front door and down the stairs to the gate, which Lawrence unlocked.
“We’ll go down Peralta to 18th then turn around, okay? It’s not far.”
Two young women passed them on the sidewalk.
“Hey Larry,” one of them said. “You just get a dog?”
“Sure did,” he said.
“Boy is he a beauty,” said the other. “What’s his name?”
“Caesar, and yours is?”
“And I’m Sonja.”
“I knew that one, Sonja.”
“Oh, I must’ve thought you forgot.”
Sonja lived in the building next door. Lawrence couldn’t be sure but he thought he’d seen her interacting with the drug dealers. She was big, and alternated smoothly between exhibiting menace and friendliness. Right now she was friendly.
“You ladies have a good night,” said Lawrence.
“You too, and welcome to the neighborhood, girl,” said Sonja with a bright grin.
“Thanks,” answered Wanda. Her eyes met Sonja’s and stayed a moment before the women moved on.
“How’d they know your name?” asked Wanda.
“Because I told them. Look, they’re not all bad. Just be yourself.”
They waited for the light at 14th Street to turn green, then they crossed. One thing about this neighborhood that would take getting used to was its liveliness. It pulsed with a sometimes manic energy. Grand Ave had been busy too, but this was different, more personal. Everyone knew everyone else, and they were always watching each other. She and her dad were something like local celebrities. They stood out unquestionably, and everyone was on the lookout for any exploitable attitudes, such as fear or prejudice. Wanda didn’t think she had much of the latter, but the former, that would take some work.
“Have patience with yourself,” she heard her father say. “I know it’s an adjustment.”
Wanda didn’t know what to say. Did she feel angry at his attempts at understanding? She supposed that, perhaps, he was going through as much a culture shock as she, except he was more brave about confronting it.
“Well I guess it is,” she finally said.
She wished her mother was here with them. Oh how Wanda missed her.
Lawrence might have picked up on her emotional detachment. He gave her Caesar’s leash then leaned into the gutter and fished a plastic bag out of a the trash.
“For his litter,” he explained.
They didn’t speak again for the rest of the walk.
The next morning her father startled her out of bed by banging loudly on the door, and she immediately jumped out of bed and opened the door in a fury: “After school I’m going to Walgreens and getting an alarm clock!” she shouted.
Lawrence laughed and raised his hands.
“Good,” he said, “less work for me. You need ten dollars?”
She slammed the door in his face.
She realized as she got dressed that she did need the money, and wasn’t sure there was a Walgreens close to school. She told him as much while they were driving to Berkeley. He said he would pick one up for her himself.
Work on the foundation proceeded. Two months after they’d moved in, and with one week of labor by a team of professionals, it was done. Lawrence thought this would be the early days’ most significant milestone. The rest of it, including sanding down the house’s exterior of its decayed lead paint to make room for a fresh coat, would be largely cosmetic. He was mostly happy with the layout of both floors of the house. There were holes in the walls and splintered wood on the floor. He and Wanda would have to live on the first floor for a period of time. He considered the first phase of work complete, and, miraculously, they had yet to be burglarized. Getting Caesar was a good idea, but Lawrence still tried to limit his trips offsite to only those absolutely necessary. There were locks on the gate and the same on the front and back doors of both floors, making five keys in all. He wondered if the neighborhood would ever learn he had a gun. He’d bought one after Myra was killed. It was probably a smart thing to have in the Lower Bottoms. As for his reasons for wanting one before he knew he would come here, he didn’t think about too much.
One day he came back from Home Depot with a fresh batch of sheetrock and found a trio of kids scrambling over his fence, trying to get out.
“Hey!” he yelled. “Fuck you!”
They made it onto the sidewalk and took off. The block seemed only half aware of what had happened.
Lawrence threw an evil glance at the regulars in front of the liquor store. No one met his eyes.
He was sure he’d left nothing out. Unfortunately that included Caesar. They probably wouldn’t have risked it had the pitt bull been out there to stop them. After a look around he was reasonably sure they hadn’t bothered with anything except his already tenuous sense of security.
There was a family in the building next door, three generations: Joe, who was Sonja’s father, Sonja, and her son Little Joe. Lawrence had come to suspect that they kept drugs for the dealers in their backyard. Little Joe hadn’t been one of the kids. But if Lawrence were ever to become paranoid it wouldn’t be too far a reach to wonder if the child had designs of his own.
He told Wanda about it when he picked her up.
“Always leave the dog out if you leave the house,” he said. “And please tell me about anything you see that’s even remotely suspicious.”
“Like the crack addicts?”
“No. Anything that has to do with us. Don’t start trouble, Wanda. We don’t want them hating us any more than they do by default.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean we’re white, honey pie. And we have money. We won’t fit in until the neighborhood changes. But some day that will happen.”
Wanda sighed and looked out the window. Soon they were back home, back in the war zone. There was a police car parked on the corner, so the block was more empty of life than usual. Wanda didn’t trust the cops either. They gave her dirty looks too.
Caesar was outside, happy as ever to see them. She was happy to see him too.
“Want to walk him with me?” Lawrence asked.
“No. I think I’ll get started on my homework.”
Wanda watched out her front window as her father and the dog left the premises. She tried, with the house all to herself, not to feel afraid.
As it turned out Caesar was not a very well-trained dog. He barked at passersby and pulled on the leash. He was almost too big for Wanda to walk by herself. Sometimes she went with Lawrence, but each time she did it felt like she were putting herself on display for all those suspicious, staring eyes.
Sometimes they took a right on 14th and arrived, after two blocks, on Mandela Boulevard. This was the largest street in the neighborhood, and the most devoid of life. It had two double lanes heading North, two double lanes heading South, and a thick median dividing them from each other. This median was overgrown with grass that reached as tall as her father’s shoulders. It was as desolate as anywhere else around here.
“This used to be Cypress St.,” he told her once. “There used to be a great big double-decker freeway running over where the grass is.”
“What happened to it?”
“The 1989 earthquake. Knocked the whole thing down, killed people and forever changed the face of West Oakland. Do you have any memories of it? The earthquake?”
“I remember waiting in the restaurant next door with mom. I drank orange juice.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard you say that before. You were only three years old.”
“I think that’s my earliest memory.”
“Would make sense if it was.”
They took a left on 18th St and walked back to Peralta. There was a restaurant on 18th and Peralta called the Pretty Lady. The two of them had yet to give it a try.
“How’s it going, Larry?” they heard.
“Hey Marvin, what’s going on?”
A man wearing an SF Giants baseball cap approached them. He had a big, friendly grin on his face.
“This your little girl?”
Marvin knelt down in front of her and put out a hand, which she met with her own.
“She looks like you. Ever heard that, girl? That you look like your daddy?”
Wanda shook her head.
“Well you do.”
Marvin stood up.
“Welcome to the neighborhood. Let me just say that I for one am happy to have you.”
“Thanks, Marvin,” said Lawrence. “We gotta get home.”
“Don’t let me stop you. And that’s one scary looking dog you got. He bite?”
“He might,” Lawrence smiled.
“Well he bite me I rip his head off for him. Just sayin.” If he hadn’t said it with a grin it might have sounded more threatening.
“Have a good evening,” replied Lawrence.
“Same to y’all. Enjoy the spring weather.”
The two continued on their way. Soon enough they were home. Wanda wondered if she’d been rude. She was a little old to have a man kneeling down to shake her hand. Then again he’d been a pretty big man. She hadn’t told him her name. Then again he hadn’t asked.
When they were upstairs she fed Caesar and then went to her room. She wanted to listen to the new Radiohead CD she’d gotten. She’d just discovered recreational music, and was quickly developing her taste for it.
It was late in the evening. Wanda was sleeping over at her friend Grace’s house. Lawrence was working on fitting in new windows for the downstairs unit when there was a loud crash outside, quickly followed by an arrival of sirens and blue-red police lights.
He went out front and found a scene of chaos. Two cars had collided on Peralta and there were crowds gathered on both sides of the street. There were also three police cars surrounding the accident.
Lawrence approached the gate and saw someone he knew, a man who lived down the street.
“Hey Kevin,” Lawrence said. “What happened?”
“Hey Lawrence,” Kevin, a short man with a stooped back, replied. “Not sure. I think some D-boys trying to escape the police when they crashed into this other car.”
“Where are the D-boys?”
“There’s one of em right there,” Kevin pointed to a fat-ish young man sitting on the curb with his hands cuffed behind his back.
“Just one?” Lawrence asked.
“I think they was more but I ain’t sure.”
“Never a dull moment is there?”
“No there ain’t.”
They stood a moment, separated by the gate. The ambient noise of the neighborhood kept up in the descending twilight. The police seemed concerned with assuaging the concerns of the innocent driver. Two more cruisers arrived. Lawrence heard the sound of a helicopter, looked up, and was flashed in the eyes with a searchlight sweeping the street and the backyards of the homes.
“Seems like they’re looking for somebody,” he said to Kevin.
“I think they is.”
Lawrence decided he didn’t want to get sucked into the vortex of events.
“Well I think I’ll leave you to it,” he said.
“Have a good evening,” Kevin responded as Lawrence left him and returned indoors.
He was surprised, upon coming into the first floor, to hear Caesar barking furiously on the second. The noise hadn’t been apparent in the hubbub outside.
Lawrence followed the sound of the barking to the rear of the house. He picked up a baseball bat that was leaning against the wall and went outside. There he found someone under the stairs. He was crouching, indistinct in the dark, but light shone on him from the open door where Lawrence was standing.
“What are you doing?” Lawrence asked, choking up on the bat.
The figure turned towards him. It was a boy. He couldn’t have been older than sixteen. His eyes were wide as plates. He was breathing heavily. Perhaps he’d just been running.
“Please help me,” the boy said. “The cops is looking for me.”
Lawrence stood over him, trying to tell if he’d seen him before. He’d spent a few sleepless nights staring out the front window at the bedlam of junkies and drug dealers. After a few seconds he still couldn’t decide whether he recognized him or not.
“Please help me,” the boy repeated.
Lawrence let the bat fall down one-handed. A few moments of calculation passed through his mind, as he wondered whether this boy represented a threat now, or if any of his friends might later. How much of a choice did he have? His first instinct was not to tell the police.
“Stand up,” he said. “Come into the downstairs so the dog won’t bite you.”
He took the boy into the first floor and closed the door behind him. Caesar kept on barking.
Lawrence turned over a bucket and pushed it against the wall and gestured with the bat.
“Have a seat,” he said. “You want something to drink? Water? Coffee? Apple juice?”
The boy fell onto the bucket a bit unsteadily.
“Don’t worry,” Lawrence said. “You’re safe here.”
Their eyes locked. Lawrence found something in his gut: the boy reminded him of the person who’d killed Myra.
“Do you have a gun on you?” Lawrence asked.
The boy’s eyes, very interested, were still stuck on Lawrence’s as he shook his head.
“Good. Rule number one of property McCoy is no outside firearms.”
He went into a cooler in the corner of the unit where he kept bottles of water. He took one out and offered it to the boy, who shook his head. He dropped it back into the cooler.
He stood there with the bat, staring. The boy, now looking at Lawrence’s feet, seemed perhaps to be making similar calculations as Lawrence had been making about him: how much of a threat does he represent?
“What’s your name?” Lawrence asked.
“Damian,” came the reply.
“Damian. I like that name.”
Lawrence didn’t know what to say. He was still holding the bat. He supposed if he wanted to he could beat Damian to a bloody pulp.
“What are you doing here, Damian?”
Damian’s face slightly darkened.
“What you think?” the boy asked.
“I think you’re trying not to get arrested. I’m helping you with that, right?”
“Okay, so humor me. I know what you’re doing in my house, but what do you think you’re doing with your life?”
“What you care about my life?”
“Why? Because you’re in my house, and unless you want to go outside and face the music I think you should take my questions seriously.”
Damian glanced at the bat and then seemed to smile. He didn’t look afraid in the slightest. Maybe being a drug dealer represented some kind of adventure.
“This neighborhood…” Lawrence said. “I can’t believe it sometimes, it’s so depressing.”
No reply at first from Damian, then he said: “Then why you here, if you don’t want to be in it?”
“You’re right, I don’t like your kind. My wife was killed by someone like you.”
“Someone like me?”
“Boy would I have loved to see him squirm,” Lawrence said. He found himself sweating. He couldn’t afford to let his feelings get the better of him. There were more Damians around here than there were Lawrences, after all. But there was that bat in his hand. Upstairs was his gun. Outside were the police. If he didn’t want to be taken advantage of he had plenty of convenient recourse to prove it.
“Tell me I’m doing the right thing,” he suddenly shouted, “taking you in. Convince me you won’t hurt yourself any more.”
“I won’t hurt you none, dude.”
“How do I know that? Do you give me your word?”
“I do,” the boy nodded.
“Just because I let you in here? Because there’s easier bucks to be made doing other things than ripping off law abiding citizens? How about selling crack to those who don’t have the same scruples? You’re all the same. You’re scum. You made a big mistake coming here.”
Damian raised his head and glared. Lawrence wondered what he had brought his daughter to West Oakland for if it wasn’t to encounter situations such as this.
Wanda. How she would hate him if he did anything stupid. How she must hate him for taking her to the Lower Bottoms to begin with.
“You stay here the next few hours,” Lawrence said, “until the cops are gone, then kindly show yourself out.”
“I wish I could make more of an impression on you,” said Lawrence.
With that he swung the baseball bat up to his shoulders and left the bottom unit. He went upstairs and made dinner. He watched TV with the volume low so he could listen to what was going on downstairs. A few hours later he brushed his teeth and got ready for bed. Eventually he heard a heaving, crashing sound which must have signified Damian’s exit over the front gate. Lawrence didn’t even care to go look after him. What an awful father he was. He couldn’t think of a single reason why Wanda would still love him. He found that he hated himself, perhaps more than he hated Damian. The kid had gotten off easy, he told himself, but then again Lawrence knew he hadn’t as much choice in the matter as he’d been pretending.
He turned the lights out and went to bed.
It was a bright, sunny summer day and Wanda was cooped up in the house, listening to her father and his hired hand at work downstairs. She suddenly became impatient. Why should she fear to leave her house? All her friends did it all the time.
She picked up Caesar’s collar and leash from the space next to the front door and went outside to find him. He was sun-bathing on the front stairs.
“Sit. Good boy.”
Caesar wagged his tail excitedly.
She took him through the front door of the bottom unit. It was all bare wood and sawdust down there.
“Dad!” she called out. “I’m taking Caesar for a walk.”
Lawrence appeared before her.
“By yourself? You sure honey?”
“I can take care of myself.”
“No argument here. Have a good walk.”
He went back around the corner. There had been love in his eyes. This made Wanda feel good.
No one in front of the liquor store across the street seemed to notice her as she turned right on 14th and headed towards Mandela, where she’d always found the least amount of foot traffic. She decided she would make it a long one, all the way down to Grand Ave and then double back on the same sidewalk. Caesar would appreciate it.
While this stretch of Mandela was mostly lined with vacant lots and warehouses, it turned out not to be completely without pedestrians. Wanda put on a brave and cheerful face. She passed a middle-aged man in shorts and a T-shirt who responded positively to her “hello.”. A little while later she passed a woman pushing a baby stroller, who smiled pleasingly at her. Before she knew it she’d reached Grand, and she turned around and started back. Caesar had already made number two. She carried his refuse in a bag. She decided that forcing herself out had been a fine idea. It wasn’t until she reached the corner of 18th that she found a group of folk, the kind she most feared, coming down the street towards her: four young girls who looked about her age. Wanda told herself to be calm, but the group took notice of her and, Wanda noticed, seemed to look at each other and come to a collective decision. They stood to either side of the sidewalk to, apparently, allow her passage, but they were staring.
“Your dog bite?” one of them asked, just at Wanda’s shoulder.
“No,” she replies.
“Then why he wearing that collar? I ain’t walk no dog don’t bite if he got on something like that.”
“He’s never bitten anyone.”
She was past them now, and dearly wanted to breathe a sigh of relief, but then, sure enough, they began to follow her.
“You live round here?” Wanda heard from behind her.
“14th and Peralta.”
“Girl, you in the hood. What you want to live around here for?”
This was all coming at her back. Wanda didn’t know what to do, so she walked faster.
“I’m talking to you, bitch,” the voiced continued, soaked in glee.
“Please leave me alone,” Wanda tried.
“You scared of niggas or something?”
“Really, I’m just walking my dog.”
“Bitch, he my dog now.”
Then she felt something hard hit the back of her head.
“Ow!” she called out and spun around, one hand going to where it hurt.
The girls scattered a few steps back, cackling. One of them, taller and probably older than the others, pivoted on her heel in a show of disapproval and said “Hey! Who did that?” But Wanda had seen a smile on her face. The other three didn’t say anything a moment, just looked at Wanda. Then one of them, slightly fat, wearing a pink Hello Kitty t-shirt and green shorts, took a few steps forward and was right in front of Wanda.
“Gimme your dog,” she said.
Wanda blinked and found herself staring into dark eyes.
“No,” Wanda said.
The girl grinned.
“You hear what I said?”
“No,” Wanda repeated.
“No you ain’t hear what I said?”
The girl brought up a fist and Wanda saw there was a rock in it. She surmised that that was what she’d felt strike her earlier.
“I’m not giving you my dog,” Wanda reiterated.
“Yes you is.”
“No I’m not.”
“Come on Janey, let’s just let her be,” interrupted the tall girl, coming forward between them and facing Janey.
“White people think they can come to a black neighborhood and just take it from us?” Janey insisted.
Caesar pawed at Wanda’s heel. Useless, she thought angrily at him.
“Come on Janey,” said the tall girl. “She didn’t do nothing.”
“I know just fine,” Janey said.
“Fuck you!” Wanda suddenly yelled, and the girls erupted in laughter. Janey came even closer.
“Say what?” asked Janey.
“I’m going home,” Wanda went on. “You can’t have Caesar. I never did anything to you.”
“Bitch I could wash your mouth out with soap,” said Janey.
Wanda turned around and started running, taking Caesar with her. She felt something bounce off her back and assumed it was the rock, but she didn’t hear the rest of them following her. Before she knew it she’d reached 14th, then she was home. She came in, heart beating loud. She was sweating, and it wasn’t only because of the heat. She took Caesar upstairs and hugged him tightly. He licked her face and pawed at her. She loved him, and was glad she hadn’t given him away. There were some things that even a scared white girl like her wouldn’t allow herself to be intimidated into. She told herself this was the last time she took him out by herself. If her dad had been with her maybe it wouldn’t have happened.
She opened the front door but left Caesar out.
“Go! You worthless thing. Go outside.”
She slammed the door behind her. She went into her room and found herself in bed, staring at the ceiling. Her heartbeat still bothered her, and her heavy breathing. But she wouldn’t cry, wouldn’t let anyone, even herself, see that something had gotten to her.
She lay there, and gradually the sun set and the light turned golden. She listened to the sounds outside, and hated it.
She thought about telling her father, but decided there was no point. Coming here had been his idea. If Myra was alive she never would have allowed it. But Wanda somehow felt that her mom’s death was why they were here in the first place. The black people here, therefore, had reason to want them elsewhere. Gentrification had been a phenomenon in the old neighborhood too.
More time passed, then Wanda heard her father’s voice; he said goodbye to his man, a Mexican named Juan, and locked the gate after him. Then her father’s footfalls ascended the front stairs and he came in the front door. A few seconds later he knocked on her door:
“How hungry are you?” he asked.
She swallowed away the sweat in her throat.
“Not very,” she said.
“How was Caesar’s walk?”
A few seconds passed.
“Okay. We’re having hamburgers tonight,” and with that he walked away.
He couldn’t tell, she thought. I know it’s not because he doesn’t care. Does he?
Why was she stuck with him, in all this danger? She wished she’d slapped the rock girl in her fat brown face.
When Lawrence summoned her for dinner she put on as much composure as she could, and ate with him silently. They usually did this. Then she went back to her room and crawled back into bed. The night fell, but not the outside voices. She took a book out of her shelf, The Collected Works of Edgar Allen Poe, and read into the night, but none of the scary stories impressed her. It would, from now on, probably take more than the usual to do so. Lawrence was watching an A’s game in the living room. How she resented him. She had no choice but to toughen up or let the fear get the better of her. In another year she would be in high school. What would those who came to her house have to say about it? When she went to college it would be to a place as far away from Oakland as possible.
The next day she took Caesar out for another walk. She did this almost every day for the rest of the summer. Miraculously, she never saw Janey and her friends again.