Tonight, my cousin Looney celebrated his twenty-first birthday and invited everybody he knew via mass text to come celebrate with him.
“Kick it wit ya boy,” the text read.
Mama hesitated but let me go because Looney is family and whenever he sees her about town—the grocery store, the gas station, or church—he engulfs her in big hugs and syrupy “yes ma’ams.”
“Can I use your car, Mama?” I asked. Looney lives on Calvary Lane, about ten miles up the road from our house on Hardway.
Mama scrunched her nose. “No. I have Club meeting tonight.” Mama meets every other Thursday with a group of her girlfriends from work and they play spades. This month they’re hosted at Ms. Erin’s house.
“Pick up your lip,” Mama said. “Ask Scrupe if he’ll let you borrow Maxine.”
Maxine is Scrupe’s dark brown big-body Buick with a bent rim on the back driver’s-side wheel. Scrupe is my granddaddy. He moved in with us after suffering a stroke three years ago. “The moss finally catching up with this rolling stone,” he says as he shuffles through the house with a half-open housecoat and mismatched socks.
Scrupe Jackson hates when I call him granddaddy. “That shouldn’t be in a nearly grown man’s nature to call another grown-ass man granddaddy,” he huffs. Deep in his heart, I think he fears it: anything “grand” means old and near death. Scrupe doesn’t want to face the fact that time shoved him forward. He finds ways to dig his heels into the present.
“Where he at?” I asked Mama.
“Under the tree with Mr. Bitters.”
Scrupe is happiest drinking beer and shooting the shit with our next-door neighbor Mulberry Bitters. Mr. Bitters is widowed, cranky, and a yes-man to anything Scrupe says.
The sound of staticky records pulled me to the backyard. Scrupe sat on two stacked crates of records with a cracked can of piss-smelling Ambrosia Gold beer in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other. A pile of records teetered on his lap.
“Hey Scrupe.” I nodded. “Mr. Bitters.”
They nodded and continued to smack their thighs to the music. “Hey there boy.” A record cover of a woman licking her tongue on her lips slipped from Scrupe’s lap. The word “bitch” caught my eye. Scrupe scowled as the woman on the cover looked up at him. “What you need?”
A man yelled at me from the record player. Why don’t ya hear me cryin’?
“Can I use your car, Scrupe?” I shouted over the record.
“Speak up, Blue! The Wolf drowning you out!”
“THE CAR, SCRUPE!” The man started to howl. Whooo-hooooo!
I cupped my mouth to sound louder. “CAN I USE YOUR WHIP!”
Scrupe looked at me from his crate stack and kicked the nearby open cooler shut. The trees shuddered a few leaves loose.
“You need a whippin’ you said?” Scrupe swayed atop his crate throne.
I moved the needle from the record. Scrupe’s eyes got big and he balled his fist.
“What the hell you doing, Blue Baby? You see me come in your space during your personal time and turn off your music?”
“Might as well,” Mr. Bitters sneered. “It’s probably crap he listen to anyway.”
“It is crap, Berry,” Scrupe said. “No substance or heart.” He turned back to me, waiting for me to say something.
“I need to borrow your car,” I said.
“Going out to a party tonight.”
“Looney’s house. He’s having a birthday party.”
Scrupe rocked on his heels and looked past me into the house. “You got something hot waiting on you?”
A slow burn crept up my cheeks.
Scrupe squeezed my shoulder with a snort. “I’m funnin’ with ya!” He fumbled around with something in the back pocket of his jeans. “Of course you trying to get some action.”
Scrupe’s half-full can of beer sloshed in agreement. He hopped off the crates to pick up the lost record. He smirked at the cover. “Hell. I know about womens. I’m a damn encyclopedia.”
Mr. Bitters licked his thumb and paged through the air like a book.
“Some are the good ones, like your Mama,” Scrupe said. “I raised her right. These other ones—”
“Tell ’em ’bout the other ones, Scrupe!”
Scrupe shot a look at Mr. Bitters. His eyes shoved downward.
“These other ones out here will waste you if you let ’em.”
Mr. Bitters pushed his index finger and thumb together. “To a nub.” His chin slammed into his throat. “Sure do.”
Scrupe pulled a key chain with two keys and a can opener out of his pocket. He tossed them into my chest.
“Bring it back with at least half a tank.”
“Thank you, Scrupe.”
I started to walk back toward the house. The howling man roared up again from underneath the tree.
“Remember what I said ’bout them females!” Scrupe hollered into my back.
Looney’s driveway was filled with cars by the time I arrived to the scene. Music bumped from a stereo stuffed through the open windows on the front side of the trailer. People were laughing and tipsy. Looney posted up in the frame of the front door. He wore a white t-shirt and basketball shorts with black socks and flip-flops. He saw me walking up the driveway and saluted. An inside-out Burger King crown with BIRTHDAY NIGGA scrawled in black ink sat lopsided on his head.
“Welcome to the Looney Bin, big Blue Baby!” Looney slurred. “Happy birthday to me!”
He wrapped his arm around my neck and pulled me inside. He had set up black lights and strings of red Christmas lights around the trailer.
“Trying to set the mood,” he said, waving his hand across the room. The music slipped into vibrating furniture and windowsills. “Had to do my day right!”
We looked around the small and crowded living room. Looney nudged me in the ribs. “You know any of these females, baby cousin?” Looney hollered into my ear as he pointed at the heart-shaped asses in white, black, and faded blue jeans. “Some of them might let you holla.” He slapped a girl on the top of her back. She laughed and playfully shoved him away. “See? Get up on somebody and see what happen.”
I started to walk toward a girl in ripped shorts and a tank top. She glistened under the red light. I couldn’t tell if she was winking at me or if it was a flickering shadow. Looney pulled me back.
“Let me give you some help,” he said. He passed me a cup that glowed under the black light.
“What’s in it?” I took a gulp. “It burns.”
“Sip slow,” he laughed. “That there is juke.”
I took another swig. Looney lifted his head with each swallow. “Something I been playing around with—little bit of lean and little bit of moonshine.”
The room slowed down. Everything sounded like a long scratch on one of Scrupe’s records.
The girl looking like a red light special stared. Her face slid to the left of the shadow.
Each thump in my chest pushed time forward. Looney threw his head back to laugh. He looked like he was trying to stop drowning.
“Yo. You need a ride home?” Looney snapped for one of his boys. Dude waved him off.
“Naw. Naw. I got it,” I slurred.
Looney chortled. Something warm and sticky smeared my palm. “Look at your cup, cuzzo.” Looney pointed and hollered. “That juke joint is eating through it.” I smiled. The left side of my face felt like it was being pulled to the floor.
“Aw. I’ll drive slow then.” I took a few steps and fell at the feet of Red Light Special. She smirked and reached for my hand. The juke pushed up through my throat and out onto her shoes. She screamed and pushed me backward. Looney grabbed me by the elbow.
“You sure you can make it home, Blue Baby?”
“I got this.” I chewed on the “s.”
“Your drunk snake-sounding ass.” Looney leaned me against Scrupe’s car. “Aight. Take the back road. No cops out there this time of night.”
I waved him off.
“Text me when you get back home!”
I don’t know how the hell I got home. I parked Maxine on the edge of the grass. It looked straight, and I didn’t want to chance wrecking it. I thought about Red Light Special and her shoes. I leaned against the car door. The hot air gummed on my arms and legs like a teething baby. My shirt soaked through with sweat. The steps to the house seemed higher than usual in the dark. I sat on the bottom step and took in a deep breath. My eardrums beat like subwoofers. I thought I heard something in the backyard. Loose rocks and phantom bumps tripped up my walk. Under the tree Scrupe’s records stood tall and quiet. I knew better than to try and climb up on top of them.
“Don’t judge me,” I hissed to the stack of music. I felt around for Mr. Bitters’s raggedy folding chair and slapped it out. My pocket glowed. It was a text from Looney:
“U home bruh?”
I nodded at the phone. Put it back in my pocket. I felt myself start to lean. I reached out for the tree and hit Scrupe’s record stand. I could still hear the faint scratching of a record.
Twigs snapped behind me.
“The hell you doing in my crook, boy?” The whites of Scrupe’s eyes glowed like my cup at Looney’s party.
“Pfffft. Hey there grand-dad-day!”
Scrupe covered his mouth to hide his laugh. “What you doing out here in the dark?”
“Trying to shake off this thing I got.”
“You can’t shake off drunk.” Scrupe’s hand clenched down on my jaw. He shook it. “What you been drinking?”
“Some jukin’ or whatever.”
Scrupe laughed outright the second time. “Your mama gone juke you if she see you like this. They brought you home?”
“Naw, Scrupes. I drove.” I felt a sharp sting on the side of my head.
“Looney let you drive like this?” Scrupe balled up his fists. “That fool.”
I reached to cover Scrupe’s mouth, but he leaned back into his crate kingdom.
“I took the back way. Ain’t no cops out tonight. I was good.”
“Good and stupid.” He thrusted me to the left. “Where my damn car?”
“Out in the driveway and resting on the grass. It was sleepy.” I chuckled. Another shot of juke jumped up through my throat and into the grass. I smeared my arm across my mouth.
“You a mess, Blue.” Scrupe let me grab his shoulder to steady myself.
“Give me a record to listen to, Scrupe.” I slapped my thighs to the beating of my eardrums. “Ha. Scrupe. What that even mean?”
“Short for Scrupulous.”
I hiccupped. The whites of Scrupe’s eyes danced and glared.
“Shutup boy. My daddy gave me that name.”
I fumbled to pull out my phone. I shined it in Scrupe’s face. “Yeah?”
“Yes indeed.” He searched for the other folding chair and stretched out.
The phone jumped on my fingertips and into the ground. My playlist started playing. “Alright” came on.
“Who? Is that the boy that live up the street?”
I hollered like Looney at the party. Scrupe grimaced. “Scrupe. Sir. Ken-drick. Lamar. The rapper.” I sounded out every syllable. Scrupe leaned over to the phone for a better listen.
“He talking too fast.” He tapped the screen. The song got louder. “But I like that.”
“Not this one. Talking like he been through some shit.”
“Ain’t that something?”
Scrupe laughed. “Ain’t it? It’s too late to warm up my records.” Scrupe flicked the record needle and in my mind it drudged a high-pitched scratch that fell in line with Kendrick’s voice. “We can listen to this fella here while you sober up.” Scrupe leaned back in his chair and patted his thigh.