I tried to run but the hurting was back, and the cold was like a wall pushing against me.
I stopped—my breath coming heavy—and turned, ready to tell M’Lady and Mama to go to Jackson. It’s dry in Jackson.
Laurel, is that you?
Slowly, Mama faded, and M’Lady turned into my friend Kaylee, shivering on her front porch. I looked around—how had I gotten on her street when Donnersville was in the other direction?
We stared at each other a long time. I could tell she was looking me over, taking in my ragged coat and bloody lips.
Laurel, she said, look at you. Look at yourself! Who did you turn into?!
ALSO BY JACQUELINE WOODSON
Last Summer with Maizon
The Dear One
Maizon at Blue Hill
Between Madison and Palmetto
I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This
From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun
The House You Pass on the Way
If You Come Softly
After Tupac and D Foster
Brown Girl Dreaming
Caught in the grip
Also By Jacqueline Woodson
pass christian, mississippi
this storm coming
daddy: part one
water rising up
daddy: part two
making the moon
stop, look and listen
beneath a meth moon
the second coming of moses
lord, do remember me
moses and rosalie
another second chance
elegy for mama and m’lady
Jacqueline Woodson Discusses Beneath a Meth Moon
Questions for Discussion
An Excerpt from Brown Girl Dreaming
An Excerpt from If You Come Softly
Before I traveled my road, I was my road . . . —Antonio Porchia
This road . . .
IT’S ALMOST WINTER AGAIN and the cold moves through this town like water washing over us. My coat is a gift from my father, white and filled with feathers. My hair is healthy again and the wind whips the white-blond strands of it over my face and into my eyes so that from far away, I must look like some pale ghost standing at the corner of Holland and Ankeny, right where the railroad track moves through Galilee, then on to bigger towns. My hands pressing the small black notebook to my chest, my head back, eyes closed against the wind and early falling snow. This is me now. This is me on this new road . . . Later, I’ll write this down—how early the snow came, how surprising, how the flakes drifted white and perfect around me. I’ll write, “The moon was finally out of me, and maybe because of this, everything felt new and clean and good . . .”
In the distance, I hear a train whistle blowing—coming from far off. But fast-moving . . . toward me.
On days like this, with so much beauty circling me, it’s hard not to feel a hundred years old. Hard not to let the past come raining down. Hard not to think about not deserving this kind of beauty, this kind of cold. This . . . this clarity. But Moses and Kaylee keep telling me that fifteen is just another beginning, like the poet with the two roads and his own choice about which one he’d be taking. You got a whole lot of roads, Kaylee says to me. And some days, I believe her. As I walk down this one . . . I believe her.
Kaylee says, Write an elegy to the past . . . and move on. She says it’s all about moving on. I’ve read about it, Laurel. You write all the time. You can do this.
So I’ll begin it this way—It’s almost winter again . . . Soon, Moses will join me here. He’ll walk along these tracks with his bag slapping against the side of him. He’ll see me in my white coat and smile. He’ll see me here—living. Something neither one of us can hardly believe.
Together we’ll sit by the edge of the tracks and talk real quiet about moving forward—over that crazy year. I’ll put my head on his shoulder and tell him again about my life in Pass Christian, the house we lived in there, my mama, about Jesse Jr. being born fast in the night. About M’lady.
And Moses, my brother-friend . . . Moses, my anchor and my shore, will lift the collar of my coat higher up around my ears, pull my hat from my pocket and make me put it on.
I’m painting over those snowflakes, Moses will say. One by one, they’re slowly fading out of here.
As I begin this story, I believe him.
THE FIRST TIME MOSES dropped a dollar in my cup, I didn’t even know his name. I looked up at him, glad for the dollar. Maybe I said thanks, but it’s blurry sometimes, my memory is. One moment clear as water, then another moment, and it’s like somebody’s erasing bits and pieces of it.
What I’m seeing as I write this down are the shadows, brown and black and some kind of blue that maybe was the jacket he was wearing, a can of spray paint in one hand, a brush in his other. Maybe it was night. Maybe I asked him his name, because he said, I’m Moses. And I said, Then this must be the promised land. The Bible comes to me that way—quick and sharp like a pain. I had just turned fifteen, and with it came a new way of talking and smiling to get what I wanted. Maybe I was thinking I could get another two dollars out of his pockets.
But Moses just looked at me like he was looking at someone familiar and strange at the same time. Most kids just passed me by, laughing, sometimes throwing whatever they’re carrying at me—half a candy bar, an empty potato chip bag, a soda can. But Moses stopped, looked at me, put that dollar in my cup, said, Did you know Ben? I’m painting that wall for his mom.
Maybe I knew right then he was different.
No, I said. I don’t know anybody by that name.
She wants it to say “Ben, 1995–2009. We’ll always wonder about the man you could’ve been,” Moses said. Then she wants me to put “We love you forever” at the bottom. In small letters. Like she’s whispering it to him. That’s what she said—“Like I’m whispering it.”
You can hardly see it with the sun almost down. Moses pointed at the wall. Beauty wasted, he said. Look at him.
Maybe I squinted across where the painting was getting started. Maybe I saw a pale outline—the beginning of the ending of Ben. It didn’t mean anything to me, though.
I asked Moses if he played ball, because he looked real tall standing there, and I figured he might have seen me cheering. I was hard to miss on the court. At least that’s what people said, but I saw the way his smile went away.
We don’t all play ball, he said.
I would have asked him about this we all thing. But other people started passing by, and I needed to make some money. You stay blessed, Moses, I said, by way of saying “good-bye, now,” but trying not to be rude because he had dollars he was sharing with strangers.
Maybe I smiled, because he looked at me again for a quick second, and I think that was because of where T-Boom chipped my tooth when we were still together. T-Boom’s got the whole tooth missing, and after we knocked out each other’s teeth, I guess we figured there wasn’t anything left to do, so we stopped going out. But of course I still saw him—sometimes two or three times a day.
Moses had his girl with him. She looked down at me like I didn’t even have a right to be living, but I just gave the look right back to her. She took her phone out of her pocket and dialed a number, said Hey, baby, then turned away from us, talking real quiet into it.
You must have some people somewhere, Moses said.
I pulled my top lip down over the chipped tooth, looked away from him and shook my head. I hadn’t felt any shame about that tooth before and didn’t know why I was feeling it now.
My people are gone.
Gone dead, Moses asked, or gone gone?
He nodded, squinting at me like he was trying to put some puzzle together.
The girl put the phone in her bag and turned back around, pulling at his arm, saying they were gonna be late. She talked like she’d been schooled in the real right way to say things: “We’re. Going. To. Be. Late. Moses.”
I’ll be back around to work on that wall tomorrow, he said to me, then let his girl pull him out of my line of vision.
And I guess I forgot about him, because it was getting real cold and I was thinking about getting to the House before T-Boom went home to his own mama and ate her dinner, then watched some of his mama’s TV and went to bed in the room he grew up in. And once the House closed, you couldn’t go looking for T-Boom at his mama’s because she didn’t know anything about where his money was coming from, so I let myself shiver until a few more quarters and dollars fell into my hat and then I put my sign away in my bag, blew my nose on my bandanna and packed up shop for the night. I got up and shook my legs to get the blood running back through them. The fuzz went away from my mind. A lady and man were walking toward me, and for a quick minute I smiled, thinking, Here comes my daddy. Coming to take me home. But then the man just patted his pockets and gave me one of those I’m sorry looks. The woman didn’t look at me at all. I stood there watching them move quick past where I was standing. Something got hard and heavy inside of me, and I knew real deep that my daddy wasn’t coming here to get me. Not this time. Not anymore.
THE HOUSE WAS DARK by the time I hitched and walked the four miles to it. Another four miles past it and I’d be at my own house—where maybe my daddy and Jesse Jr. were sitting down in front of the television, eating spaghetti with sauce from a jar. No green vegetables to speak of, like how it would be if I was still living with them. It had been weeks, maybe even months since I’d last seen them, and a part of me wanted to keep walking until I got to our door, opened it up and said, Hey, Daddy, your baby girl is home. But it’d been a long time since I’d been his baby girl. A long time since I’d helped Jesse Jr. hold the garlic press up high, letting the juice drip down over a bowl of hot spaghetti till the whole house smelled like the promise of something good coming.
I felt myself starting to shake and kicked at the broken-down door on the House, hollering loud for T-Boom to open it.
There was smoke coming out of the chimney, so I knew he was inside. The old gray boards nailed to the windows flapped where wind pushed up underneath them, and even from way off there was the smell of something bitter burning.
I kicked at the door again, calling T-Boom’s name so loud my throat hurt.
You lost your mind, girl? You want the police all over me?
He’d gotten skinnier over the months, and his hair was long, coming almost to his shoulders. The plaid shirt he was wearing had a hole in the arm. I used to love the way he looked in that shirt, the red and black squares of it, the way he’d pull the collar up when he was cold. Now I just stared hard at the hole, trying to find somewhere besides him to put my eyes.
You heard me calling you the first time. I know you did.
He held out his hand, and I put the money in it. Mostly quarters but some dollar bills, too. My stomach hurt from missing lunch, but I knew the moon would fill that hunger up quick.
T-Boom shivered, shaking a little as he counted the money. You still out by Donnersville?
Excerpted from Beneath a Meth Moon: An Elegy by Jacqueline Woodson
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