I felt as if I had died and that the steps I was taking were the final unerring, unalterable footfalls toward hell. And even though I was a black man, in a country that seemed to be teeter-ing on the edge of a race war, my color and race had nothing to do with my pain.

Every man’s hell is a private club, my father used to tell me when I was small. That’s why when I look at these white people sneerin’ at me I always smile an’ say, “Sure thing, boss.”

He knew that the hammer would fall on them too. He forgot to say that it would also get me one day.

I drove a zigzag side street path back toward the west side of town. At every intersection I remembered people that I’d known in Los Angeles. Many of those same folks I had known in Texas.

We’d moved, en masse it seemed, from the Deep South to the haven of California. Joppy the bartender, dead all these years, and Jackson the liar; EttaMae, my first serious love, and Mouse, her man and my best friend. We came here looking for a better life — the reason most people move — and many of us believed that we had found it.

. . . You put a pistol to the back of the neck of the one come in last . . .

I could see myself, unseen by anyone else, with a pistol in my hand, planning to rob a big oil concern of its monthly payroll.

Nearly twenty years of trying to be an upright citizen making an 1 0

C i n n a m o n K i s s

honest wage and it all disappears because of a bucketful of bad blood.

With this thought I looked up and realized that a woman pushing a baby carriage, with two small kids at her side, was in the middle of the street not ten feet in front of my bumper. I hit the brake and swerved to the left, in front of a ’48 wood-paneled station wagon. He hit his brakes too. Horns were blaring.

The woman screamed, “Oh Lord!” and I pictured one of her babies crushed under the wheel of my Ford.

I jumped out the door, almost before the car came to a stop, and ran around to where the dead child lay in my fears.

But I found the small woman on her knees, hugging her children to her breast. They were crying while she screamed for the Lord.

An older man got out of the station wagon. He was black with silver hair and broad shoulders. He had a limp and wore metal-rimmed glasses. I remember being calmed by the concern in his eyes.

“Mothahfuckah!” the small, walnut-shell-colored woman shouted. “What the fuck is the mattah wit’ you? Cain’t you see I got babies here?”

The older man, who was at first coming toward me, veered toward the woman. He got down on one knee even though it was difficult because of his bum leg.

“They okay, baby,” he said. “Your kids is fine. They fine. But let’s get ’em out the street. Out the street before somebody else comes and hits ’em.”

The man led the kids and their mother to the curb at Florence and San Pedro. I stood there watching them, unable to move.

Cars were backed up on all sides. Some people were getting out 1 1

W a lt e r M o s l e y

to see what had happened. Nobody was honking yet because they thought that maybe someone had been killed.

The silver-haired man walked back to me with a stern look in his eye. I expected to be scolded for my careless behavior. I’m sure I saw the reprimand in his eyes. But when he got close up he saw something in me.

“You okay, mister?” he asked.

I opened my mouth to reply but the words did not come. I looked over at the mother, she was kissing the young girl. I noticed that all of them — the mother, her toddler son, and the six-or seven-year-old girl — were wearing the same color brown pants.

“You bettah watch out, mister,” the older man was saying. “It can get to ya sometimes but don’t let it get ya.”

I nodded and maybe even mumbled something. Then I stumbled back to my car.

The engine was still running. It was in neutral but I hadn’t engaged the parking brake.

I was an accident waiting to happen.

For the rest of the ride home I was preoccupied with the image of that woman holding her little girl. When Feather was five and we were at a beach near Redondo she had taken a tumble down a small hill that was full of thorny weeds. She cried as Jesus held her, kissing her brow. When I came up and lifted her into my arms she said, “Don’t be mad at Juice, Daddy. He didn’t make me fall.”

I pulled to the curb so as not to have another accident. I sat there with the admonition in my ears. It can get to ya sometimes but don’t let it get ya.

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When I came in the front door I found my adopted son, Jesus, and Benita Flag sitting on the couch in the front room. They looked up at me, both with odd looks on their faces.

“Is she all right?” I asked, feeling my heart do a flip-flop.

“Bonnie’s with her,” Jesus said.

Benita just nodded and I hurried toward Feather’s room, down the small hallway, and through my little girl’s door.

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