Meet Chazz From UNLIKE ME

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“Chazz! Would you please read the first quote on page 38?”

The harshness of Ms. Coleman’s tone was what got my attention. I wasn’t knocked out, but I was definitely dozing off. I sat up quickly, turned to the correct page of my textbook and drew a blank. I hadn’t been keeping up, so I looked at Tanya who was sitting next to me, and she whispered the first few words of what I was supposed to say.

When I found the words close to the bottom of the page, I began to read them aloud to my classmates: “Your life is a result of your own decisions — not your conditions.”

“Very good, Chazz,” Ms. Coleman replied, her words dripping with sarcasm. “Now…share with the class your thoughts about this quote.”

I cleared my throat and looked her in the eyes. “I think the man who wrote this probably grew up with a swimming pool in his backyard.”

The class erupted in laughter.

“Settle down, class! Settle down right now!” Ms. Coleman shouted. “Chazz, see me after class.”

“Ooooooooooooooo!”

I slumped in my chair as the other kids continued laughing at me. Ms. Coleman went on to get a more appropriate answer from Ashley, the class suck up.

I went right back to dozing.

When the bell rang, Ms. Coleman didn’t say anything to me so I figured I’d walk out before she remembered that I was supposed to stick around and listen to her “proper behavior” speech. I’d heard it often enough to repeat it verbatim. Unfortunately, I didn’t even make it to the door before I felt a firm hand on my shoulder.

“Chazz, I do not appreciate you falling asleep during my class. And I certainly do not appreciate you disrupting other students. Your participation today left much to be desired.”

“I was just answering your question, Ms. Coleman,” I replied, shrugging. “No disrespect. I’m sorry, and it won’t happen again.”

“Thank you. I expect you to be on time and awake tomorrow, Mr. Henson. That will be all.”

And with that, I was dismissed.

I was already late for sixth period, so I got in trouble as soon as I walked through the door. My mathematics teacher, Ms. Gardner, immediately expressed her disappointment. As soon as I sat at my desk, she pointed to several problems on the chalkboard and I gave her the right answers quickly and respectfully. I liked Ms. Coleman, and I liked math even more. After a few more questions and a few more right answers, she smiled a little and moved on to quiz a few other kids. For now, all was forgiven.

When the bell rang, I was the first one out of the door. No time to kick it with Will and Corey after school today; I had too much to do. Instead of catching my bus, I started walking up Hill Street and made a left on Decatur, sprinting several blocks before cutting through the square and Five Points Station on my way down to Underground Atlanta.

At the bottom of the escalator, I stopped at a vending machine and dug into my pockets for some change to buy a can of soda. Along with a little lint, I pulled out $1.22. Smiling, I upgraded to a twenty-ounce bottle and gave the twenty-two cents to Winston, the local area bum who was standing in his usual corner hoping to beg up his next meal.

“Thanks, young blood,” he replied, gratefully. “You just gettin’ out of school?”

Nodding, I unscrewed the bottle cap on my soda. “I had to come down here and take care of some business. Be easy.”

“Always, lil man. Always.” He shuffled away, ready to harass an unsuspecting white couple who must have gotten duped by their hotel’s recommendations for scenic downtown Atlanta attractions. Ready for entertainment, I watched as the pretty, lily-white woman hid behind her husband in horror as Winston started in on his very best “can-I-get-a-dolla” routine. The white man shook his head violently and tried to rush off which only motivated Winston to show them how aggressive the city’s local bums could be. Angered, the man scowled and shouted a few choice words before he led his ole lady down the dirty brick road to alert a lazy ass security guard trying to sweet-talk a couple of Magic City rejects while Winston scurried along behind them yelling, “Jesus paid it all!”

Welcome to Underground. Atlanta’s Most Infamous Tourist Trap.

Passing by, I shook my head at Winston and chucked a deuce before slipping into the Dollar Store. After I was done there, I stopped by Balboa’s Menswear, the Action Masters DVD spot, Greek Street, Watch Me, Silver Mine, Gold Market and Scentsations before posting up in the back of the food court near Barbecue Works. My stomach started growling so I signaled my man working behind the counter and, five minutes later, he was standing in front of me with a hot piece of catfish wrapped in a napkin.

“What’s up, lil man? I should’ve known yo greedy ass would be down here today,” Rodney said, dapping me up. “You good?”

As he shifted his eyes to the center of the Food Court, I followed his gaze to the group of APD’s finest grubbing over by American Deli. Looking back at him, I grinned. “Yeah, I’m good. Thanks, Rodney. You need something?”

He stopped me before I could open my backpack, glancing at the cops. “Nah, stay low. I’m straight today, but here…” He reached in his apron and gave me a five dollar bill. “Don’t stay too long.”

I nodded my appreciation and gave him another pound before he went back to work. The fish was gone in four bites, washed down with the rest of my Sprite. Looking around, I checked the crowd.

Rodney was right. Something was off today.

I left the Food Court and made it to the other side of Underground on Upper Alabama Street. Normally, I’d run through a few of those mens’ stores to see what was up. Every now and then I’d see a few famous people coming in or out of the raggedy establishments after dropping a few grand on some gators and suits. I loved going in those stores. They looked cheap from the outside, but they had some hot stuff if you looked twice.

I spent the next couple of hours in the area, dipping in and out of a few more spots before I ended up at the corner of Edgewood, Marietta and Peachtree. I looked up at that big Coca-Cola clock to check the time.

5:28.

Rush hour.

Waiting for the light to change, I rushed across the street along with a bunch of Georgia State students and a dozen nine-to-fivers trying to catch their train home. Woodruff Park was in action as always, but I didn’t have time to slow down. I had to get to my man, Frank, before he locked up the shop at six even though they usually didn’t leave until around seven-thirty. They were shady like that.

Sixteen blocks later, I was walking through the door of Frank’s Barbershop. At least fifteen dudes were yelling and laughing like Kevin Hart was in the chair giving a free show. I glanced around to see who was the source of entertainment. Of course, it was none other than Roc. He was definitely on a roll because he had folks crying, they were laughing so hard. Roc was cool, a transplant from New York. Not the city, though. Usually everybody came down here reppin’ one of the boroughs, but not Roc. He was straight from Buffalo, born and raised, and proud of it.

I tuned in to Roc’s antics while I made my rounds, paying my respects to all the fellas. They took good care of me here, so I always showed them love.

Roc stopped running his mouth long enough to shout me out. “Yo, lil man! What’s good, son? Hey, I was just telling them about that time…”

And he went right back into his story.

That was Roc.

He was always sharing some flashback of his childhood in the shop with anyone who would listen. I used to wonder how a place called the Fruit Belt could be hood, but according to him, death could find you twenty-four-seven on Grape, Orange and Lemon Streets.

“We don’t need no help, we the FRUIT BELT!”

The whole shop was rolling as Roc kept chanting. I had to admit that it was pretty corny, but I guess if you could get caught slippin’ on Peachtree, there was no doubt that what Roc was saying was the truth. As unbelievable as it sounded, if he were to tell me gangstas was grimy on the corner of Pineapple and Plum, trust and believe it was happening.

I kept moving to the back of the shop and climbed up some hidden stairs to the pawn shop. I spotted Lou right away sitting on a bar stool behind the sales counter smoking a blunt and watching cartoons. “‘Sup, Lou?”

“If it ain’t the Chazz-Man.” He was slurring his words and his eyes were bloodshot. Pressed for time, I slipped my backpack off and dumped all its contents onto the counter. Cuff links, fedoras, DVDs, watches, rings, chains, perfumes and sorority plates.

Today had been a pretty good day.

“Boy, what is all this shit?” Lou snapped. “Oh, hold up. Them fedoras kinda hot right now though. I can get something for them. And lemme get them rings, chains and cuff links too. You can keep the rest.”

“Com’on, Lou,” I begged, pushing the DVDs his way. “You can easily get the fellas downstairs to pick these up.”

“Nah,” he replied easily. “YOU can get rid of them. This is all I want.”

After Lou grabbed what he wanted, I stuffed everything else into my backpack. He reached in his register and counted out $180. Not bad. I could still get another $60 or so for what I had left. “Thanks, Lou,” I yelled on my way back downstairs. He probably didn’t hear me though. I’d bet the $180 I just made that he was already back on his bar stool, smoking and laughing at the television.

Downstairs, I unloaded just about all of my DVDs to the fellas. A few of them even dropped an extra $5 or $10 on me. When I got to Roc, he dapped me up leaving a $50 in the palm of my hand even though he didn’t buy one thing.

I grinned. “Thanks, Roc.”

“No doubt. I do what I can. Handle ya bizness, lil man,” he said, seriously.

Looking him in the eyes, I nodded respectfully before rushing out the door. I still had to make it down to GSU’s Student Center and catch the sorority chicks before their weekly meeting was over. Maybe I could even come up another $40, but if they started acting shady and asking too many questions about the license plates I had for them, I’d just let it go until another day…because I was running out of time.

Thankfully, the chicks were pretty cool so it was a quick stop. I left there and ran from Courtland all the way back to Broad Street in nine minutes flat. When I made it to the door, I paused to catch my breath and count my money. With the $60 I’d just picked up at GSU, I had $345. I stuffed the money back in my pocket and rushed to the back of the store. Luckily, there wasn’t a line since it was closing time.

I walked right up to the counter.

“Good evening, young man. May I help you?”

She must be new. I’d never seen this woman here before. “Yes, ma’am. I’m picking up a prescription for Wilma Henson,” I replied, calmly. She ain’t gonna go for this…where’s Mr. Williams?

“Ahm, young man, I can’t allow you to purchase medication for someone else. Are your parents here with you?”

Does it look like my parents are with me?! I tried to keep a straight face as I explained that I was sent to pick up a prescription for my grandmother. She still wasn’t buying it.

“I’m sorry,” she replied. “You’ll just have to come back with her tomorrow. I’ll be sure to—”

“Thanks, Janice. I’ll take it from here,” Mr. Williams interrupted. He could sense my relief and smiled at me reassuringly. “Hi, Chazz. You’re just in time. I have your grandmother’s prescriptions ready and waiting for you. Just give me a few moments to wrap up this phone call.”

“Thanks, Mr. Williams.”

Man, was I glad he was still here. If I didn’t get Grandma’s meds today, she’d have to go without until next Tuesday when Mr. Williams got back from his vacation and I wasn’t about to let that happen. I would’ve shook ole girl or snuck back there and stole them if I had to.

I decided to pick up a few items Grandma needed from the grocery aisle while I waited for Mr. Williams to get the prescriptions. Campbell’s soup, grapefruit juice, Little Debbie snacks…I went one by one down my mental checklist and arrived back at the counter just as Mr. Williams appeared with the medicine. He quickly scanned each package and grocery item and, as usual, scanned his own discount card because I’d forgotten Grandma’s again. It helped a little, but the total was still way more than what I had.

“All right, Chazz. That will be $392.68.”

$392?  “Ahm, Grandma only sent me with $300 today. Can you give me what she really has to have, and I’ll come back for the rest later?”

He smiled and made a few adjustments. I’m not sure what he worked out for me, but I was able to walk away with three of the five medications Grandma needed with $3.42 left to spare. “See you next week, son. Tell Ms. Wilma I asked about her.”

“OK, Mr. Williams. Thank you!” I stuffed everything the best I could into my backpack and carried the rest before I ran through the store and out the front door. It was 7:08. My bus was gone, but I caught the train to King Memorial instead and walked the rest of the way home.

“Grandma! GRANDMA! Where you at?!” I yelled, slamming the front door behind me. I smelled fried chicken, so I immediately headed for the kitchen, thinking she was still cooking dinner. When I didn’t find her there, I paused. Where she at? The house was quiet except for the faint sound of the television in the back room.

“GRANDMA!”  I knocked on the door as I pushed it open. She was lying on her side asleep in her bed, still wearing her duster.

“Hey, baby. How was school today?” she mumbled, her eyes still closed.

“It was good, Grandma,” I replied, noticing the frown on her face. I knew she wasn’t mad at me though. That frown was more from the pain she was probably in.

“Baby, can ya gimme my pain pill?”

“You ran out of them the other day, Grandma, remember? But I went to get some more from the drug store today. I’ll be right back.” I raced to the kitchen and pulled everything out of my backpack. Then, I poured her a glass of water and another glass of grapefruit juice, stirring in a spoonful of sugar just the way she liked it. After I read the prescription packages, I tore open the one I’d been looking for and popped the top. I poured out two of the pills and carefully carried everything back to her bedroom.

She sat up slowly, the wrinkles in her forehead getting deeper with every movement she made. “Thanks for gettin’ all my pills for me, baby. That sho helped your Grandma out ‘cause I couldn’t have made it down to Mr. Williams today. My back been achin’ me bad!”

“I know, Grandma. It’s cool,” I replied. “Here. Take your pills.”

She held one up to her mouth, but then she gave me that look. “How’d you manage to get all my pills?”

“I ain’t get all of ‘em, Grandma. I got most of them though.” I was gonna leave it at that, but she narrowed her eyes even more. She was obviously expecting an explanation, so I gave her one. “Lou let me work some extra days at the shop after school, and I’ve been going the days I don’t have to study with Bree at the Center. Plus, I’ve been saving and this week I had enough to pick them up early for you. I couldn’t get them all, but he gave me the ones you really needed.”

That seemed to settle her down. She’d caught me stealing several times before so she was always thinking I was up to something. This time, I had a better cover. Everybody down at the barbershop knew that if Grandma ever came snooping after me one day, the only story she’d ever know was that I stocked shelves and swept floors at Lou’s Pawn Shop. And Roc would lie to anybody about him paying me to cut grass and help him finish the basement of his imaginary Auntie’s two-acre house every Saturday. Thanks to them, I was legit.

After she swallowed her pills, I helped Grandma ease back under the covers. I grabbed the remote to turn off the television but, before I pressed the OFF button, she snatched it from my hand. “Boy, what you doin’? Leave that on…you know that’s my show.”

I tipped out the room, leaving the door cracked just in case she yelled out for me. Heading towards the kitchen, my stomach started growling smelling all that good food Grandma cooked earlier. That piece of catfish I’d had at the Food Court got ran off somewhere between Broad and Decatur Streets. It was really all I’d eaten today with the exception of that dried-up spaghetti they served in the cafeteria at school.

Grandma hooked it up! I thought, happily. There were pots everywhere. Sweet potatoes, cornbread, collard greens, corn on the cob, macaroni and cheese and she even fried a whole chicken today. I packed every inch of my paper plate and poured a big cup of grape Kool-Aid before crashing on the sofa in front of the television in the front room.

“Thank You, God, for the food. And help my Grandma feel better…Amen,” I said before shoving the first forkful of collard greens into my mouth. Before I finished chewing, I remembered the rest of those DVDs and sorority plates I’d left on the kitchen table. The last thing I needed was for Grandma to see them. Placing my plate on the floor, I rushed over to the table, shoving everything back into my backpack. I’d get rid of it all tomorrow. Maybe sell it half off or something on the way to school in the morning. After all, it was a recession. Everybody needed a discount.

With everything hidden, I went back to my plate and turned the channel to watch a rerun of Martin. During the commercial, I pulled the remaining $48.42 from my pocket and left it on the end table for Grandma to find. She was always forgetting something and would probably think she left it there by mistake, so there would be no need to explain where it came from.

Maybe I could still get about fifteen dollars for those plates and DVDs, I thought. That should be enough to buy another MARTA Breeze Card to get me back and forth to school and around town for the next week or so. I thought about my homework but I was just too worn out from the day to do it. Instead, I finished up my dinner, stretched out on the couch and laughed at Mama Payne yelling at Gina.

When the show went off, the quote I read earlier at school popped into my mind out of nowhere.

“Your life is a result of your own decisions — not your conditions.”

I sat up and looked around our tiny apartment, taking in the worn furniture, dingy carpet and the paint peeling off the walls.

“Yeah, right,” I mumbled to myself before I grabbed the remote and changed the channel.


Front Cover - UM Final

UNLIKE ME by Rae Lamar
http://www.amzn.com/B007M4I5UO

Adjusting to a recent promotion and newly separated from her husband, Sabrena Moore is taking everything one day at a time. A stroll down memory lane with her ex is the last thing Sabrena needs but, as the days turn into weeks, the urge to reconnect becomes impossible to ignore…

Rowan Washington is as determined to right his wrongs with Sabrena as she is determined to keep their resurrected relationship platonic. So when he is asked to partner with Sabrena to help mentor a troubled young boy through their company’s youth mentorship program, Rowan doesn’t hesitate to take advantage of the quality time that naturally comes along with the task…

As Sabrena and Rowan grow closer, others do their best to disrupt their reunion but, in the end, everyone’s fates are sealed when Sabrena is forced to choose between what seems best and what feels right…

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