(Online Bonus) REVIEW: Kirwyn Sutherland’s Jump Ship

Some of the feelings within a Black life cannot be easily expressed; they contradict each other. Sometimes a person wants revenge against the oppressing majority, and other times, they seek assimilation. Despite the difficulty of translation, Kirwyn Sutherland’s Jump Ship illustrates the triumphs and torment of Black people in America.

Sutherland is a poet based in Philadelphia. He has published two chapbooks, X: A Mixtape and X: A Mixtape Remastered, has written book reviews for WusGood magazine, and has poetry published by Tobeco Literary Arts Journal, Drunkinamidnightchoir, APIARY, and Public Pool. Jump Ship’s illustrations are by visual artist and DJ Oluwafemi.

Jump Ship reveals the mental conversations Black people have with themselves about difficult subjects. The poem, “The Email Said” shows the hidden frustration Black people have when forced to code-switch. “Assimilation” details the mind and the fixed smile of a man who tries to conform with racist coworkers. “Taunts to the Klan” is a proclamation of pride and glee to spite racists.

Like a mind racing, Sutherland’s poems read quickly. He does this by using slash marks in some poems and all caps in others. “The Email Said” uses repetition to create speed.

talking to the wall about

what you would have said

to the ‘next person

who spoke so well

of your “speak so well”’ (16-17)

In “Assimilation,” Sutherland creates speed with imagery:

When I heard my co-workers say nigger

It almost knocked the whiteness

out of me but I caught it with my

fist and prayed whiteness wouldn’t confuse

the grabbing for a power move (13-15)

“Assimilation” is also notable for its references to pop culture: an epigraph says it is inspired by Sarge from A Soldier’s Story. Another poem in this collection that talks about conformity, “Uncle Tom’s Redux,” calls out Kanye West, Steve Harvey, and others for selling out their Black pride. The references in Jump Ship make it timely and relatable.

“Taunts to the Klan” uses speed similarly to “Assimilation”; both use description to create intense situations. But thematically, the poems conflict. The narrator of “Taunts to the Klan” can spot a closet or a proud racist within seconds, but the narrator of “Assimilation” wishes to fit in with the racists around him, so much so that he maligns his Black co-worker. Black pride and self-doubt, ideas like these are explored in Jump Ship.

Some poems use slash marks as well as line breaks to affect pacing; others use capitalization to affect the volume and intensity of specific words or phrases. Most of the poems manipulate their speed in some way, leading to a reader feeling impassioned. These poems are not contemplative gazes at nature; they’re a door kicked off its hinges. They’re shouts of pride and wails of agony from centuries of torment.




Writing for Social Justice: At Your Mother’s Knee

The idea of instituting Governments is to secure people’s rights to life, liberty, and property. When John Locke stole this nugget of ancient Egyptian wisdom from the goddess Maat, I wonder if he had any idea folks like Thomas Jefferson would bastardize the wisdom and completely change the language, replacing property with pursuit of happiness.

Today, we see the consequences of this theft in American society. The colonialist mindset of manifest destiny was created without the contextual principles of truth, balance, order, harmony, law, morality, and justice that Maat represented thousands and thousands of years before this country’s inception.

If America had been built on these principles, the humans, the animals, the oceans, and the airs would yield better results for all life forms. But alas, Maat’s bastard child, the United States, was birthed without a legitimate connection to its mother. Stealing from her while trying to mimic her at the same time.

No respect for the true mother of American principles has been shown. This is evidenced as women who built this country were shamed, granted no property rights, and barred from the pursuit of happiness. And of course, out of pure hate, the founders captured Black women, and not only denied them property or a pursuit of happiness, but also inflicted inexplicable atrocities on them.

This sordid, inequitable history has left many Black women behind their peers when it comes to ownership in this country. And by ownership, I really mean guardianship, because as Maat will tell you, no one “owns owns” this land.

So how do we begin to reckon with this wretched history and restore the order? Well, look around and see that I, like so many Black women business owners in Philadelphia, are running businesses out of buildings and off of land that we have very little rights to or ownership over.

This modern form of sharecropping, working the land that someone else benefits from, limits our ability to leave the legitimate legacy of our businesses to our lineage and poses a serious impediment to our lives, our liberties, and our pursuits of happiness/property.

For the new year, I wish more folks, especially Black women in Philadelphia, and around the world, owned (not leased or borrowed) our own land and maintained complete and total autonomy over the direction of our futures on this land. This is the only way to begin to rectify the bastardization of Maat’s ancient wisdom. This is the only way to begin to repair the damage inflicted on us through forced labor in a measurable, sustainable way—because simply posting Black Lives Matter on Twitter or kneeling at a protest or reading antiracist literature is not enough.

Speaking of reading antiracist literature, my job as the shopkeeper at Harriett’s Bookshop is to curate and recommend books. This month I am recommending Ida B. The Queen: The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells which will be released on January 21st. It examines the life of Ida B. Wells—the mother, the writer, the advocate, the activist. Ida B. Wells exemplifies a crusader intent on restoring order and enlisting the principles of Maat even in the face of the lynching of her friends, the destruction of her newspaper, and the insults on her name. In her day, Ida B. Wells galvanized small civic groups across the globe to work in tiny cells on measurable community actions. Think big tree, small axe.

Consider, not only reading Ida B. The Queen, but also using her great granddaughter Michelle Duster’s text as a catalyst for starting your own small civic group that moves into action on the topic of life, liberty, and property. Because only the people can restore the order. It is also time to start partnering with like-minded folks and securing guardianship over land in ways that align with principle over profit. And while I am asserting large institutions should listen to this conversation and take action by offering land and resources to the people, I assure you this is going to happen either way. Because as the Great Mother Maat reminds us, balance is necessary and life, liberty, and property are a birthright. Ase.

For the last 10 years, Jeannine Cook has worked as a trusted writer for several startups, corporations, non-profits, and influencers. In addition to a holding a master’s degree from The University of the Arts, Jeannine is a Leeway Art & Transformation Grantee and a winner of the South Philly Review Difference Maker Award. Jeannine’s work has been recognized by several news outlets including Vogue Magazine, INC, MSNBC, The Strategist, and the Washington Post. She recently returned from Nairobi, Kenya facilitating social justice creative writing with youth from 15 countries around the world. She writes about the complex intersections of motherhood, activism, and community. Her pieces are featured in several publications including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Root Quarterly, Printworks, and midnight & indigo. She is the proud new owner of Harriett’s Bookshop in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia.

Pond: a synonym for hope

To read “Pond: a synonym for hope,” click HERE.

elijah b. pringle, III has facilitated workshops on writing. Published nationally and internationally, he is nominated for a “Best In Net 2020.” Elijah has been the MC/Host for Panoramic Poetry, Moonstone Art Center, ToHo Journal and PhillyCAM’s “Who Do You Love”. He has been a mentor to many and a student of everyone.

Washing Stockings

Around Midnight

the same fashion Daddy’s arms would rest
on the torn edge of his seldom used easy chair
which sat lonely in a corner trying to be unseen
Mom’s arms would rest on the lip of the basin
bending over a sink made white with Comex

water would dance between strong sturdy hands
as she scrubbed vigorously ‘puff of smoke’ stockin’s
to move the dirt and dust collected from the week
when she would fix the kids for school and please her man
after the day’s work for money to close the gap

between can’t afford and thrift shop bargains
second handed stuff that was given another chance
the ritual of familiar made us all comfortable
we knew it was Saturday soon to be Sunday
Mommy’s steps were bunions and corns then

the bottom of her feet black from the walks
barefooted because her shoes were too tight
and so was money and I needed new sneakers
just so the white kids wouldn’t laugh at me
or we needed something, always something

but Ivory soap lathers up extremely well
when rubbed against used nylon stockings
about to be glory bound in eight hours that’s
after they had dried in front of the heat vent
even in summer the ritual meant everything

elijah b. pringle, III has facilitated workshops on writing. Published nationally and internationally, he is nominated for a “Best In Net 2020.” Elijah has been the MC/Host for Panoramic Poetry, Moonstone Art Center, ToHo Journal and PhillyCAM’s “Who Do You Love.” He has been a mentor to many and a student of everyone.

Black Diamonds and Pearls

He tells me of days when even dreams can’t wriggle free.

I see him struggle to hold
the laughing child

once alive inside him,
watch him strain to remember
how beautiful it can feel to be gentle.

There are walls and there are walls,

and now I only see him through gun-proof double-thick glass,
in this place where chained hearts steadily drip
onto already stained concrete floors,
and I don’t waste time telling him

I miss him. I find ways to smile,
even manage to drag an actual laugh through his
ragged lips, and his fingers

aren’t too torn
when they line up mirror-image of mine. He worries, you see,
that I will let go of even this, and I can offer no reassurance

for that same fear has already seized
my own broken heart.

As a mixed-race child of the 80s, Martin Wiley grew up confronting and embracing a world that was as jumbled and confused as he was. His current work attempts to examine what it was to search for manhood in that time and place. For the past few years he had labeled himself a “recovering poet,” but his children’s love of words has dragged him, mostly happily, off the wagon. After receiving his MFA from Rutgers-Camden, he remained in Philadelphia, working at Project HOME, being a dad and husband, and finding time, when possible, to write.

Tea Scars

To read “Tea Scars,” click HERE.

Mariah Ghant (she/her) is a Black woman artist based out of Philly. An alumnus of Vassar College, she studied Drama and English focusing on Acting and Poetry Writing. Mariah’s work has been featured in three print publications with Z Publishing, as well as online with Distance Yearning, Lucky Jefferson, MixedMag, and Passengers Journal. Forever fantasizing on the phenomenal, Mariah’s writing explores relationships, identity, and the cosmos. Visit her poetry Instagram @mariah.g.poetry or check out her artist website, mariahghant.com.

Sunday Service

Diedre is someone who can handle anything, so Evelyn and I looked up when we heard her edge and saw her throw up her hands. Weaving elegantly past the tables and chairs in the undercroft, her kitten heels clicked on the hard linoleum as she announced, without even looking back at Brother Spaeth: “I don’t deal with dead people.”

Well after that Evelyn and I knew we had to stop what we were doing.

Each Sunday morning is the same. Evelyn, svelte and neat; not a hair of her salt-and-pepper pixie-cut out of place, was (as usual) methodically pouring orange juice, apple juice and cranberry juice into plastic cups.   Each juice-flavor selection on a separate, doily-lined tray, each cup about three-quarters full and lined up in uniform rows.  I stood next to her, a foot or so away, also looking out at the dining room from the church kitchen’s long rectangular serving window. I’m stout, my hair is styled in natural twisted locks  that fly- free especially my grey streak in the front;  I was (as usual) appropriately disheveled for someone working in a church kitchen before 8 in the morning.

Upstairs at St. Matthew AME Church they were praising the Lord and foot-stamping to the music. And I was trying to creatively line- up small boxes of Frosted Flakes, Frosted Mini-Wheats, Rice Krispies and Fruit Loops, next to Danishes in commercial cellophane and apple turnovers Saran-wrapped by hand and rearranging the blond cafeteria trays they sat on.  But now Evelyn and I both stopped and looked out at Diedre and Brother Spaeth and then at each other, silently craning our heads and knowing we were both thinking: “Did I just hear what I thought I heard?”

What’s more, it was Diedre and she can handle anything. Evelyn and I walked out of the kitchen in tandem to help, and there at a table near the center of the dining room sat a man with his head down. He was completely still—his back did not move up and down, he was apparently not breathing.  Evelyn poked him in the shoulder; there was no response.  I fingered his wrist and felt no pulse.

So what now? 100-plus people in church upstairs, most of them coming down to breakfast within the hour; biscuits and sausages in the oven, and a dead guy sprawled across a table in the middle of the room.

I volunteered to go upstairs and tell somebody.

I took a shortcut, ran up a back staircase and emerged at the side of the sanctuary. I can’t remember where they were in the service, but they were in full-church-passion mode and I decided to try to be discreet. Then it hit me: How do you break this news and to who?

I tapped one of the nurses, sitting at the end of a front-side pew near the Stewards, on the shoulder and said, Rena we have a situation – “A gentleman has apparently passed away downstairs.”

She looked at me like she’d never seen me before in her life. She said: “What?”

I whispered: We need you to come downstairs, one of the indigent people who come for breakfast, has apparently died in the undercroft. Rena had slipped out of her shoes – white nurse’s clogs – and she fumbled getting them back on her feet as she rose to rush downstairs behind me.

When we got downstairs the scene was unchanged: Diedre, Brother Spaeth and Evelyn standing over a slumped, disheveled, dirty-looking dead man.

And then he stirred. And then he started to throw-up. And everybody jumped back.

“I don’t deal with throw-up.  You can ask my late husband,” said Evelyn.

As she walked to the kitchen to get a wet dishcloth.  Rena cautioned us not to touch his body-fluids. Since Evelyn and I were the only ones wearing gloves ‘cause we’d been working in the kitchen we realized for these initial moments we were it. I took the dish towel, noting that she’d picked a nice towel and taken the care to use warm water, as Evelyn crossed to the other side of the round table and started gathering up the plastic tablecloth.

I had the wet dish cloth under his chin as he finished spitting up and by the time I had folded it over to gently wipe his face, Diedre and Rena were putting on gloves and gathering up the tablecloth on either side. Brother Spaeth gave us an ETA on the EMTs and announced he would get a trash can.

Rena, who had to go back upstairs to get her pocketbook (and see about her mother) told us he might have hit his head and we should talk to him until the emergency services people came. So, I sat down next to the gentleman—he was middle-aged, balding, medium brown-skinned and not bad-looking with a freshly cleaned face.

So there we sat, in front of the partially bunched up tablecloth with the warm, damp dish towel folded and laid in front of him. (Just in case).

OK, now, what to say to someone you just thought was dead once we were past: “Let me help you… let’s clean up your chin a bit, there now…. Face to face now, I started: “And I’m Maida, what’s your name?”  He just stared at me under low eyelids and said, “usually people just leave me.” (When he passes out?) Usually?

I decided to try not to be condescending and make our required talk as conversational as possible, while cleverly, sneakily (I thought) checking his coherence.  I engaged, “So what did you do yesterday?” I asked as casually and politely as I could.

“What did you do yesterday,” he countered with an edge that surprised me. And I stuttered; at that moment I couldn’t remember yesterday.

Then he started asking me if I’d been to some church on Wednesday, or another church on Friday, or a different church on Saturday and gradually I realized he was telling me which churches gave away free food and which days I could go. And I started to see his sad, sad enterprise—a network, a traveling band of near-abandoned people walking from church-to- church all over West Philadelphia, looking for Christians willing to give strangers something to eat.

The EMTs came and I walked away. Brother Spaeth threw everything on the table away, Diedre wiped up with disinfectant and set out a clean tablecloth. Church ended, and the congregants came down to eat breakfast.

By the time Evelyn and I got back to the kitchen, someone had put the sausage patties in the biscuits and wrapped up the pork and turkey sandwiches, placing the piles next to the pastries and cereal creating the same food display everyone expects every week except first Sundays when we serve sage sausage, scrambled eggs, bacon, cheese grits and home fries.

Evelyn and I were back at our stations, food-prep time long past.  Indeed, we were nearly through serving our church family when a slightly familiar man walked through the line. Evelyn and I looked at each other, finally forming the words: “Was that?”

Diedre walked past, looked over at us and paused. “Yes, I know, “she said, her voice flat. “A resurrection and it wasn’t even Easter.”

Maida Cassandra Odom, a native of Akron, Ohio, is a longtime North Philadelphia resident and a member of St. Matthew AME Church in West Philadelphia. She retired in 2019 after working as a newspaper writer/reporter, a union activist/editor, and a journalism professor. Her church distributes free meals every Saturday.

Coal Black

The story of what happened during the summer of 2020 is lost, or rather, someone just dusted it over, and if you just put a little breath on it, you’ll reveal it all. The only abnormalities you can find in the official records have to do with the weather. If you want to know what was really going on, you’ve got to compare what you find on social media with what was officially reported. Check BallSnatch, Fakebutt, and Ingrastam. You’ll see. Things just don’t match up. Maybe you’ve got to water gaze, get a clean bowl, and fill it. Maybe you’ll get some answers that way. I don’t know.

Back then, the reporters gave no indication that anything was unusual; they continued to report the weather like nothing was wrong.  It was August, and not once had officials given us citizens an explanation for why it hadn’t rained all summer. Every city experiences an occasional drought, but it wasn’t dry. Far from it. There should have at least been a mention of it. No official source—no TV weatherman, no newspaper, not even weather.net—gave an explanation for the all-encompassing mushy grayness hovering over the city. Each morning a thick fog rolled in off the Delaware river. It was so massive. It looked like God had hiked her puffy white skirt above her knees to avoid the water. Then, for the rest of the day, a seemingly malcontent, monochromatic shadow colored everything, and no one said anything about it. Imagine normal, temperate, summer weather being like this all of a sudden:

Dawn rises, and there might be a wind that’s a little aggressive, a little more than flirtatious with the hair that hangs about your neck. It teases, and then it definitely threatens, slowly becomes tempestuous. And by mid-morning the sky cracks and rolls but never opens.

There was no rain. Never. At least there wasn’t any officially reported. Every day with the same recorded smile, the weather person, in her too tight cocktail dress and pin-up girl makeup,  announced the same, “Smothering humidity, high temperatures, severely overcast skies, possible rain.”  But it was ridiculous. Everyone knew that it rained. Just not continuously, and not over a very large area.  It was known to rain on one person, or one car, or one house at a time. In torrents. Hurricane conditions for an average of four square feet for an average of four seconds. They didn’t lie, not really. The media, indeed the people, simply ignored these uprisings that only amounted to the discomfort of a few, people who were often other anyway.

A new fried chicken and milkshake place had opened up across from the park, next to the new tiny art gallery, opposite the popsicle store, the pickle store, the mayonnaise store, and the barley beer store. It seemed to Sunny that there was now a store for everything in this neighborhood. How about a Qtip and cotton ball store? A dish soap store? Sunny imagined one day, these specialty stores would cover the city. And instead of a supermarket, you’d get each ingredient for your sandwich from a different store. At the end, your tomato on rye with vegan curry mayonnaise would cost over $100. How ridiculous would that be? But for now, couldn’t a sweet, thick milkshake cheer her, lift the numbing grey fog clinging to her mind and heart?

As if in defense of the thought, an angry steel cloud began forming over her head as soon as she stepped off the number 40 bus. Sunny barely escaped the rain. She stepped quickly through the glass doors that had been covered in plywood after the last riots. Merry bells rang, startled her, bright sounds to match the shockingly bright white walls and halogen lights. The inside of the shop had been sterilized of all of the violence and uncertainty that filled the streets around it.

Sunny ordered her shake from the counter girl with the blond hair. She had a plastic smile and empty blue eyes.

“Vegan shake please.”

“I’ll bring it out to you in 10. No chicken today?”


“Right,” she said with a tiny smirk.

Sunny slid onto a stool at the counter in the back and carefully peeled off her damp cardigan. From her vantage point she could people watch. She could clearly see everyone sitting at tables and booths. There was a thin slice of glass left uncovered by the plywood, and so she could also spy the anonymous raincoats and umbrellas walking past outside the shop.

There was a Black couple in the booth closest to the window that kept grabbing her attention. They were the only other Black people in the restaurant. And although most of the Black faces she passed in the streets were gloomy and wet, victims of rain, their houses maybe even torn up by the summer’s flash storms, they seemed to be happy. The sun wasn’t shining at all, and still their faces were reflecting some source of inner light. The waitress brought over a basket of hot chicken, which she sat in the middle of their table.

“Gimme some,” the girl said.

The man looked at her with a devious grin. “Better keep your hands off my food woman.”

She placed her hands on the table and leaned forward ready to pounce.

“I will bite the shit outta you,” he said, still smiling. “Stop playing!” he placed a protective arm in front of the basket.

The brown man began to eat greedily. He barely held in his laughter and paused to drop the chicken and lick his fingers to cool the burning. His date saw her chance. She pushed his arm aside and snatched a wing just as he was about to attempt another bite.

“Let me try this here. The girls at my school said this place got good chicken.” The woman pulled the wing from her mouth; her teeth took most of the meat from the bone.

The man spoke first, “This is nasty as hell,” he said, “it’s soggy as fuck.”

“Dang!” she said and spit the bite she had taken back into the basket.” Ain’t no salt on it or nothin…”

“And that piece you bit is bloody in the middle.” She looked as if she wanted to vomit. “That’s so trife.”

“That’s what you get, woman. How you gone let some white girls tell you where to get chicken in your own hood? What the hell is ‘artisan fried chicken’ anyway?”

“I coulda got better chicken on the block with some salt pepper ketchup.”


“Like $.10 a wing.”

“Alllll day!”

They both laughed until they were holding their bellies. They sat closer together. He grabbed the back of her neck and they pressed lips. Sunny swiveled her stool back toward the counter and sighed. Her milkshake had come and melted. She hadn’t even noticed. It was just as well.

Twisting to and fro on her stool, Sunny glanced once more at the couple as they made their way to the door in each other’s arms. They were the brightest in the room, not the walls or the lights, and when they left, they carried the sun out with them. Sunny imagined that they were in love. The way the girl kept smiling and the way the boy kept touching her, she imagined she must have been witnessing love or something like that.

Sunny paid for her forgotten milkshake and left. Her rain cloud had waited above the door of the shop to escort her home. She glanced at it threateningly from time to time as she walked the four blocks to her house. She didn’t even bother to put her umbrella back up.

“Fuck it,” she thought, “let it rain.”

But it didn’t.


The front door of her apartment was open, but the lights were off. She wondered where her roommate was. As she neared the top of the stairs in the communal hallway, she could hear a commotion in the bathroom. A less experienced partygoer may not have recognized the faint noises she heard as retching. But she knew, before she saw, that Mel was throwing up into the toilet. Sunny took the last few steps in bounds.

She found Mel with her head in the toilet looking distressed and even more pale than usual. She helped her into her bedroom and sat her on the bed. Sunny noticed that her personal cloud had hung around, and was now outside Sunny’s bedroom window making a storm just for her. Fat droplets began to assault the pane. Mel lowered her face as her eyes also began to shower the front of her lavender tank top. Her tears came in torrents. Puddles began to form in her upturned, cupped hands.

“I’m pregnant Sunny and I think it’s Allen’s.” Mel did her best to push her words through the water.

“Wow, Mel. Can I be the god mom?”

“Don’t be stupid. I can’t have this baby.”

Sunny moved to her friend’s side. “I’ll help you,” she said and gently brushed the hair out of Mel’s eyes. She held her tear-soaked hand. “And you won’t have to worry about money. Your parents will give you money right?”

“Not for a half Black baby Sunny. They’d just die. They’d disown me! For real this time…”

Sunny stood up and moved away. “Well, no that’s crazy, Mel. It’s your baby, so they’ll love it. Besides, your parents aren’t racists. They’ve always been really nice to me. How many times have I been to their house?”

“That’s because you can’t get their daughter pregnant, dummy.  Of course we are nice to Black people, we don’t fucking have babies with them. My nanny was your color Sunny,”  Mel stood glaring. “I’m getting rid of it, that’s what I’m going to do.”


“I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “I just can’t do it.” And she left the room.

Sunny stood in the same place in the middle of the floor, staring at the empty spot on the edge of her bed where her friend had just been. She didn’t think. She just stood wondering what to think or do, if anything was to be thought or done. She turned toward the window, which the darkened sky had transformed into a mirror. For a moment the rain racing down the glass almost made it look like Sunny was crying, but she wasn’t. She couldn’t. She certainly wanted to but couldn’t choose between the many reasons why she might. Her friend had been the one crying, but somehow, Sunny was the one soaking wet. Now the rain was inside. She ran her hands over her cottony, kinky curls and briefly felt self-conscious; felt herself an enemy of her own skin.

Then Sunny felt anger but she felt love too. She remembered the couple she had seen in the restaurant, how they radiated love. For a brief moment, Sunny wanted to curse Mel, but instead she said this prayer for her and her baby:

I hope this child is born. I hope it’s born full of love and health, she prayed, and Dear God, I pray it’s born black as coal.

Misty Sol, a writer/visual artist from small-town Pennsylvania creates art to explore Black people’s connections to family, nature, and speculation. When she isn’t painting, writing, or homeschooling her two kids, Misty enjoys making meals from scratch, gardening, and foraging for wild edible plants. She currently lives in and creates in Philadelphia. Misty’s work is featured in both literary and visual genres in our winter 2021 edition. Visit www.mistysol.com.

Nobody Makes it Big in Philly

Elizabeth did the best she could to make ends meet. There were times she’d pay the light bill and times the lights went out. Sometimes we had a place to stay, other times we had to flee in exodus. Those times, I could never bring more than I could carry. We’d get to the apartment of some new artist boyfriend of hers that I had to call “uncle” so and so, and he was gonna take care of us, but it never lasted for more than a few months. We always outstayed our welcome.

I always assumed my father was one of the many artists she had lived with. I had no pictures or physical description, just the drunken ramblings of my mother yelling in an ear-piercing tone that I “looked like that motherfucker.” I remember going through a phase where I studied every brown-skinned man on the street and wondered if he was my father.  His name did not appear on my birth certificate, so all I could do was wonder.

When I was around eight, she settled with Fingers, a pianist and singer.  She followed him from gig to gig, usually stumbling home in the early twilight hours. A tap at my feet would signal their return, and I’d awake to see his tall, dark figure standing over the bed.  All I could see were his eyes in the moonlight and the red-orange of his cigarette dangling from those curving dark-colored lips. I was forced to sleep on the couch in the living room.

I used to share the same bed with my mother, sleeping on her right side, while her night guest laid to her left.  Until one evening, Fingers got mad and shouted, “When is he gonna get a bed of his own?” Ever since then, I was forced to sleep on the lumpy old couch in the living room.  I hated laying there alone in the dark while he enjoyed the comfort and warmth of the bed and my mother’s affections. Watching from the crack in the door as their bodies merged in the moonlight, I’d see how he held my mother, and how she looked at him. Fingers would call her “Baby,” and he’d sing to her.

In the morning, I’d have to tiptoe past their sleeping half-naked bodies, with the fragrance of cigarettes, liquor, and sex stinging my young nose. Forging my way to the bathroom and stepping on their carelessly flicked cigarette butts, together with empty bottles of Night Train lining the threadbare carpet. This became a part of my morning routine. Fingers would usually stir a little when I closed the door after having used the bathroom. He’d rub his eyes, smile dryly, and say something like, “Hey little man.” I’d scowl at him and walk back to the couch, wishing he’d leave so I could sleep comfortably.

When Fingers slipped out the front door in the morning before mom could prepare breakfast, I could hear her quietly sobbing in the bathroom. When she finally made her appearance in the living room, she’d push a bowl of cereal towards me.

As Fingers and Elizabeth’s relationship progressed, there would be weeks Elizabeth wouldn’t come home and I’d be left alone to fend for myself with nothing but liquor bottles in the apartment. Eventually I found my solace in those bottles. I’d sit in the living room and drink until I passed out, my little body numb to the reality of neglect. While alone, I began to channel my thoughts into a black and white marbled composition book, waxing poetic about the things that didn’t make any sense to me, about not knowing my father, about how poorly Fingers treated Elizabeth, and how I wished for a place to call a permanent home.

By the end of the year, Fingers stayed with us. I stayed as far away from home as possible. I passed the hours after school in the library, meandering through the art section, falling in love with the surrealism of Dali, the artful graffiti of Basquiat, and the collage of Romare Bearden. I began to see my world of abandoned buildings and liquor stores in geometric patterns. I began drawing and sketching this world in a spiral pad, seeing the images before the pen ever touched the paper. I consumed the writings of Richard Wright and listened to the sounds of Gil Scott Heron and The Last Poets. I was in the library until they kicked me out.

Elizabeth and Fingers were up nights talking about moving to New York. Fingers said he was tired of taking the Chinatown bus.

“Nobody ever made it big in Philly,” he told my mother.

A few weeks later, my mother told me that we were moving. I didn’t bat an eye. I got up from the couch and started the familiar ritual of shoving my clothes into my duffel bag. Moving in with Fingers would be just another of our many relocations.

“What kind of dump he taking us to?” I asked.

“Baby, there ain’t no place for you where we going.” I walked down the stairs with my duffel bag and waited for Fingers to start up his Monte Carlo.

I hopped in the back, not sure where I was going. Fingers looked at me through the rearview mirror for a while. I wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction of seeing me cry or asking my mother to pick me over her lover. Elizabeth sat in the passenger’s seat and remained silent as the car went down Grays Ferry Avenue.

Pietra Dunmore’s writing has appeared in Rogue Agent, Penumbra, Causeway Lit, Pine Hills Review, Rigorous, and Hippocampus Magazine.