I wanted to write a memoir but the connective tissue of the memoir didn’t interest me. I wanted to render memories that would pop up like mushrooms and quickly vanish. I owe much to where I was raised, in a black neighborhood where people talked to each other and spent time on the porch and on the corner, as did my brothers and their friends as they smoked weed, drank Mickey Big Mouths and Heinekens, and talked all the time about the insanity of Vietnam, nuclear war, and H.P. Lovecraft, and from there they’d segue into the adventures of the many memorable characters in the neighborhood. I tried to do that here. A new installment will appear here every Saturday this and next month.
White like paper, painfully white, wincingly white; white like vampires. His name was Alfred and I didn’t know what to think about him other than he was a freak or maybe a monster. He’d appear in the alley in the hot sun of the afternoon, squinting like it was always high noon with one hand elevated to ward off stray sunlight. He’d watch me doing the things I’d do while my dad worked on cars. I’d play with our hounds or dig holes looking for buried treasure or worms and bugs. Sometimes I’d pick the wild tomatoes that grew in the alley and eat them or the low hanging loquats and peaches. There was always something to do and I liked to be around my dad.
“Hey,” the albino kid said.
I didn’t know what to say. Instead I stared at him, at his white skin and loopy grin that made him look ghoulish.
“Why your dad always working on cars?” he asked in a surprising low voice.
“Cause he like to. He don’t have to, he works at the post office,” I replied.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Jervey,” I said.
“What kind of name is that?”
“I don’t know. It’s my name.”
“You know Googie?” he asked.
“Yeah, the fat boy who hangs off his daddy’s truck who throws loquats at my daddy while he works on cars in the alley. Yeah, I know him. Sometimes we’re friends.”
The albino kid lowered his hands from his face as the sun moved lower in the sky.
“You want a friend?” he asked me.
I looked at him for a long moment and saw how red his eyes looked, like the white rat’s eyes at school. Before I could respond my daddy abruptly closed the garage door right in Alfred’s face.
“Let’s go get a burger,” he said as we walked to where his Galaxy 500 was parked. Even my daddy who tolerated all my friends and took everybody to the beach and Griffith Park didn’t like Alfred, vampire boy.
Later I asked Googie about Alfred, but he paid no mind to him.
“Naw, I don’t talk to no white people.”
“You mean Albinos. Why?”
Googie made a face like he stepped in dog shit.
“Why I want to hang around somebody who look like they in a monster movie? People be thinking I’m weird.”
Nobody thought Googie was weird, just that he was always getting in trouble like he was ready for a vacation in juvenile hall, but he was smart and funny and didn’t care about the high cost of his recklessness.
Alfred lived about three doors up from Googie. Googie’s house was big and comfortable because his dad was a talented carpenter, but the house of the Albino kid was huge. It was two and a half stories and like most of the houses on 3rd avenue it was nice, freshly painted and well maintained. But it wasn’t one family living there; it was some kind of home for kids. Occasionally I’d see a little girl who lived there, and I’d see the sons of the lady who owned it, polite guys, two well-built black brothers. One had a pretty red Camaro. I was in the front yard tossing a Frisbee with Googie when one of the brothers pulled over and waves us to his car. He looked pained and sitting next to him was the little girl who lived there. She wasn’t too much younger than me, maybe seven. I remember she was very pretty and she had been crying. Her eyes were red and wet with tears.
The brother asked with a pained expression if we had seen any strangers around.
We hadn’t. We noticed everything and anything and no strangers had come through.
“No,” I said. Googie shrugged.
The guy looked at us shaking his head.
“Somebody did something bad to her. I’m looking for him. If you see anybody you don’t know come by and tell me.”
He gave us both a dollar, smiled even more painfully and drove off.
“What do you think happened to her?”
“Somebody done her.”
I wasn’t sure what done her was, but I could tell it was bad.
“What you think they’ll do if they catch who done it?”
Googie shook his head.
“I don’t know but I want to see what they do to him. Bet they mess him up real bad. Let’s go look around maybe we’ll find the guy and get more money.”
I wasn’t like Googie, brave and crazy. No, I was cautious to the point of boring myself. I just wanted to read and do science experiments, be a pootbutt and not be dead. But I did walk over to 3rd avenue with him.
We saw Alfred not lurking in the shadows in the alley but in the hot sun with his white arms at weird angles to keep the sun out of his eyes. I wanted to avoid him but he cut me off, ignoring Googie and concentrating his weird gaze on me.
“Hey, Jervey. What you doing?”
He smiled showing his weird brownish teeth.
“Got me some tamale Fritos and Orange Crush,” he said proudly.
I got the feeling that Alfred wanted to hang with us. I couldn’t do that because he made me feel like he was going to do something weird, try to drink my blood, or cut me into little pieces and feed me to chickens. When he realized we weren’t going to play with him he took off almost skipping while spooning Frito tamale mush into his mouth and drinking Orange Crush.
Like all those stories that don’t resolve themselves in a way that works, what happened with Alfred and the home he lived in didn’t either. I saw Alfred one last time in the alley. He was crazy excited about something and soon we learned what made him so giddy — that well-tended, two-story home that Alfred lived in and that we admired had caught fire, and from the alley we could see flames bursting from the roof and like magic suddenly all the kids in the neighborhood were there watching the fire trucks appear and beat back the fire. I didn’t see Googie until later that evening when he came by. I knew he’d know what happened. He took his time in telling, but finally it burst out of him.
“I heard Alfred done it because he was sick and tired of being white, so he wanted to make his room black so he burnt it,” Googie said with a grin because he had the story to tell, and it was too weird not to be true. The house was rebuilt but Alfred and the family never did come back.
Jervey Tervalon was born in New Orleans and raised in Los Angeles, and got his MFA in Creative Writing from UC Irvine. He is the author of six books, including Understanding This, for which he won the Quality Paper Book Club’s New Voices Award. Currently he is the Executive Director of “Literature for Life,” an educational advocacy organization, and Creative Director of The Pasadena LitFest. His latest novel is Monster’s Chef.