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Authors: Andrea Cheng

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BOOK: Where Do You Stay
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23

After dinner I'm washing the dishes and Monte's drying when the doorbell rings. Aunt Geneva's talking real low, Uncle James too. “Yes, I understand. We'll be there. Yes, sir, in a few minutes.” There's a police car parked in front of the house.

Monte drops the towel on the floor. “I told you,” he whispers.

“Stay here with Monte,” Aunt Geneva says to me, taking off her apron.

“Where are you going?” I ask, but they are already out the door.

Monte's doing his shaking thing again like he does when he's scared, so I get him a blanket even though it's summer and he wraps all up in it like a cocoon.

“Damon's in jail,” he says.

“He's probably just at the police station.”

“How-how-how do you know?”

I want Monte to stop his trembling. “Listen, Monte, we're starting your piano lessons,” I say.

“Without a piano?”

“You'll see.”

Mama said when she was small they didn't have enough money for a piano, so they made one out of paper and she practiced like that. But there was no sound.
Sure there was, Jerome. The music's in your heart and in your hands.

I get four pieces of paper and tape them together. Then I take a black marker and a ruler and I draw a whole row of piano keys. I give Monte a marker too and show him which notes to color in to make the black keys between the white ones.

“Okay, this one here is middle C,” I show him, humming the note. “So you put your thumb on there and start your scale. One, two three, thumb under, four, five, six, seven, eight.”

Monte puts his hand on the paper just the way I show him and plays the notes. I sing the scale as he moves his fingers. Then I show him how to come back down, putting his third finger over on the E.

“Okay, now we're playing a duet,” I tell him. We play the scales together, Monte singing high and me singing low. His voice is quiet but it's right on pitch. We go on playing all different scales and singing so loud we don't even hear the door open.

Damon's shirt is ripped under the arm. He's just standing there, not going upstairs or into the kitchen or anywhere, staring at our paper piano like that is about the dumbest thing he's ever seen.

“Go get cleaned up,” Uncle James says.

Damon starts to say something, then turns and heads up the stairs.

“Jerome's giving me piano lessons,” Monte says in a small voice.

Aunt Geneva's eyes are all swollen up. She kneels down on the floor. “Let me see, Baby.”

Monte plays the scale.

“Very good.” She turns to me. “I haven't forgotten about your piano, Jerome,” she whispers. “I hope you know that.”

I stare at the paper piano on the floor.

Aunt Geneva sits on the sofa and Uncle James is beside her. She is crying without making any noise, but we can see the tears running down her cheeks. “It's okay now,” Uncle James says. “He got good and scared now.”

Aunt Geneva nods.

“You heard what they said. He's young yet. First time in trouble. He'll come around.”

Aunt Geneva covers her face with her hands. “I tried my best,” she says. “I tried to raise these boys the right way.”

Uncle James is rubbing her back. “You did a fine job,” he says. “There's just lots of trouble out there, that's all.”

“I tried,” she repeats.

Then all we hear is sobs.

If Mama was here, she'd tell me what happened.
You can't make a plan without the information first
, Mama said.
You have to know the facts.
Suddenly I have to know.

“What'd he do?” I ask.

“Steal,” Uncle James says.

“Steal what?”

“DVDs.”

“What are they going to do to him?” Monte asks.

“There's a court date,” Uncle James says.

Monte is crying. “Damon's going to jail,” he says.

Aunt Geneva pulls Monte to her lap and then they're both crying. “Shhh,” Uncle James says. “They won't send him to jail for a first offense.” He looks at me. “Jerome, take Monte to bed. Best thing for him to do now is get some rest.”

I look down at Monte. He's doing his shaking and shivering, but still we have to know the facts. “How did he get caught?” I ask.

“The cashier saw him put a DVD under his shirt. Caught it on film.” Uncle James looks at Aunt Geneva. “We'll talk to Ms. Jackson. Her son's a lawyer and he can guide us through this process.”

Monte reaches for my hand like a little boy and we head up the stairs.

24

Monte comes into my bed like he's been doing.

“What if they do put him in jail?” he whispers.

“They won't.”

“He could die in jail,” Monte says.

“He's right there on the bed,” I say, “so stop worrying. He wasn't even in jail, just at the police station. And your dad's getting help from a lawyer.”

“How do you know?”

“That's what he said.”

Suddenly Monte sits up. “He's not all bad,” he says, grabbing my arm. “You know that, Jerome?”

I nod.

Monte has his eyes squeezed shut. “I see colors with my eyes closed,” he says. “What about you?”

I shut my eyes. “I see black and white,” I whisper.

“I see purple and orange and blue. I see Damon's purple T-shirt and he's playing basketball and laughing.”

I keep looking with my eyes closed. “No colors. Just black and white. Like piano keys.”

“Are you going to stay here a long time?” Monte asks.

“You already asked me that.”

“So you aren't going anywhere?”

“Like where?”

“Like New York. I heard Aunt Melinda saying she'd be happy to have you.”

“I'm not going to New York,” I say.

“But if you do, can I come?”

“I told you, I'm not.”

Monte won't give up. “But if you go—”

“Your mom and dad are adopting me.”

I said it. I let the words out of my mouth without thinking, like water out of a hose. Monte looks at me in the dark, afraid to move. Finally he grabs my arm. “I've wanted you to be my brother for forever.”

I'm quiet then. Want has nothing to do with it. There's lots of things that happen that a person doesn't want. “I want to keep my name the way it is,” I whisper.

“Because your name is something you're born with,” Monte says.

“Yup.”

“But if you don't change your name, can you still be adopted?”

“If you follow the process.”

“What do you mean, process?”

“There's all this paperwork.”

Monte is squeezing my arm so hard it hurts. “And after the process, you'll be my real brother, right?”

“If you stop digging your fingernails into my arm.”

Monte relaxes his grip and looks down. Then he gets up and unfolds the paper keyboard on the floor. “I'm practicing my scales,” he says, moving his fingers across the keys.

“Don't flop your wrists,” I tell him. “A pianist is not a floppy rag doll.”

He tries again.

“Better,” I say.

He finishes the scale and looks up. “If I want, can I change my last name to match yours?”

I shake my head.

“Why not?”

“You just can't.”

“But we'll still be brothers. Just with different last names, right?”

I never really wanted a brother or a sister. I had David across the street to play with and then I had Mama waiting for me at home.

“How come you're not answering, Jerome?”

I look down at Monte with his fingers still on the paper keyboard. “What did you ask?”

“Can we still be brothers even if our last names are different.”

“Sure,” I say. “No problem.”

25

We go back to that lawyer and wait for over two hours. What'd he give us an appointment for if he's so busy? Aunt Geneva keeps shuffling the papers and looking at her watch. Finally I say, “Can I see those papers?”

“They're for the lawyer,” she says.

“I know. But can I see them?”

She hesitates.

“Mama showed me everything,” I say.

Aunt Geneva hands me the stack.

There's my birth certificate on top, Jerome William Mason. Place of birth: Cincinnati, Ohio. University Hospital. Next is my parents' marriage license. Underneath the date are their names: William Randall Mason and Sylvia Nicole Jackson. I wonder if Mama wanted to change her last name.

“When ladies get married, do they have to change their names?” I ask.

“It's the custom,” Aunt Geneva says.

“But do they have to?”

“It's not a must.”

“I'm not ever changing my name,” I tell her.

She pulls her eyebrows together. “It would be simpler
if we all had the same last name, Jerome.”

I feel the tightness in my chest. “Jerome William Mason is the name Mama gave me,” I say. Jerome was Mama's idea. Daddy wanted to name me William Randall Mason the Second, but Mama said
Our baby isn't second, he's first.
When they came with the papers at the hospital, Mama wrote Jerome in the line for my first name. Sometimes people try to call me Jerry, but I don't answer because Jerry is not a name I like.

Finally the secretary calls us into the lawyer's office. He takes the papers and looks through them. On top of the stack is the one that says Mama died. I don't know why he even needs that, because why would I be getting adopted if my mother was alive?

“It looks like everything is in order,” the lawyer says. He smiles at me. “It should come through in about a month.” He doesn't say anything like
Sorry to hear about your mother.

“Thank you,” Aunt Geneva says. “It would be best to have it settled before the start of the school year.”

“No guarantee,” the man says. “We have to contact his father, you know.”

I stiffen. My dad hasn't been around in so long. What business does this man have trying to find him now?

“His father hasn't been seen in years,” Aunt Geneva says.

“I understand that. But the law says we have to make
an effort to contact him. He has one month to respond.”

“And then?” Aunt Geneva asks.

“He can voluntarily relinquish his right to the boy.”

The lawyer acts like he's not talking about me when I'm sitting in this chair right in front of his face.

“His father hasn't been present for most of his life,” Aunt Geneva says crisply.

A temporary stop. He's not interested in us, Jerome. No matter. We have each other, that's what's important.

“The law protects his rights as a father.”

“I don't know why he would have any rights after all this time,” Aunt Geneva says.

The man smiles at her like she is a child. “Most likely he won't respond. That's what happens nine times out of ten.”

Aunt Geneva stands up and looks him right in his face. “I hope you will do what you can to expedite this process,” she says.

“We'll contact you as soon as we know something.”

“We'll be waiting.” Aunt Geneva leads me out of the office.

We walk down the marble stairs out into the bright sunshine. People are hurrying this way and that on the sidewalk. I can hardly catch my breath.

“Are you okay, Jerome?” Aunt Geneva asks.

Concentrate on each breath. In, out, in, out.

“You want to rest here a minute?” Aunt Geneva leads me to a bench in front of the courthouse. There's a patch
of grass behind it with a sprinkler going. I let the cold water droplets land on my arm. Aunt Geneva wets her hand and puts it on my forehead.

“I know this isn't easy, Jerome,” she says. “I know that.”

The water is cool on my head, dripping down my neck into my shirt.
Water the garden deep
, Mama said,
to keep the roots from coming up. Early morning's best, before the sun rises. Then we'll practice our duet before you go to school, once the whole way through.

Aunt Geneva is rubbing my back. “I know it's hard, I know. I know you miss your mama, Jerome. I do too, more than you even know, Jerome. There's a hole there for me too, but having you fills it a little bit.” Aunt Geneva stops moving her hand. “I've been looking in the paper for a piano, did I tell you that?”

I look up.

“Uncle James says by the end of next month we may have enough saved for a used one, that is.”

I take a deep breath, and we head over to the library.

“You know, when we were little, your mother and I used to come down here. Of course Sy was always reading those big books with big words in them. Your mother was smart, you know that? I always wished I was smart like that, but words never came easy to me.”

I breathe in the smell of books and air conditioning and Mama. We used to say how someday we'd get one of
those nice downtown condominiums that's only a quick walk to the library. Of course a river view would be nice too, Mama said, but we both agreed that the library was more important.

I check out a book about a blind boy and his seeing-eye dog, and another one about famous African Americans that I think Monte will like too. Aunt Geneva takes out one about how to raise boys.

“You already know that,” I tell her.

“There's always more to learn.”

“Now you sound like Mama,” I say.

26

I wake up early and head up the hill. Mr. Willie's still not back. I water all the plants in the vegetable garden plus the four o'clocks, then I pinch the suckers off the little tomato plants the way Mama taught me. I wonder why they grow there if they aren't good for anything. I check the cucumber vine. Under a big green leaf is a tiny prickly light green cucumber.

Monte is there, following me like he always does. “How long until we can eat it?” he asks.

“Depends on if it rains or not.”

“But you watered.”

“Watering's not the same as rain,” I say.

“Why not?”

We hear a loud noise. Two trucks carrying dumpsters are coming slowly up the street. One pulls up by the mansion and the other stops in front of the carriage house.

“They're tearing it down,” I whisper to Monte. “For real.”

“What about Mr. Willie?”

“He's not home now.”

“I know. But we better tell them somebody's living in
there. We better tell them not to mess with Mr. Willie's stuff.”

“We can't,” I say, feeling my throat swell.

“Why not?”

“This whole place belongs to Ginny and Tom,” I say slowly. “So they can do whatever they want with it.”

Ginny is walking toward us. “Is this your brother?”

“My cousin,” I say.

Monte looks at me like
Why didn't you just say yes
, but I'm not his brother yet.

Ginny reaches out to shake Monte's hand. “What's your name?”

“Delmonte,” he says.

“Pleased to meet you, Delmonte.”

“He's called Monte,” I say.

“Monte, then.”

Tom comes out of the mansion carrying three boxes that he tosses into the dumpster. The men follow behind with plasterboard and broken screens. It's hard to believe how much junk has been sitting in there, all smelly and rusty and broken. “Maybe they'll leave Mr. Willie's house alone,” Monte says.

“I told you, it's not Mr. Willie's.”

Ginny comes out carrying a heavy box. I help her lift it into the dumpster. “Thank you, Jerome,” she says. “You're a lot stronger than I am.”

“What's in these boxes?” I ask.

“Very moldy books,” she says. “A lot of them. By the way, we went down last night and looked for the piano you've been talking about, but there's nothing like that down there.” She puts her hand on my shoulder. “It's not as if a piano can really hide itself.”

“Did you find the keys to the back rooms?” I ask.

“Not yet. But we looked in the windows, and there are just stacks and stacks of boxes.”

I see Damon coming up the hill toward us. He stops a couple of yards from where we're standing.

“Another cousin?” Ginny asks.

“That's Damon,” I say. “Monte's brother.”

After I'm adopted, he'll be my brother too. I never thought of that before. I'll have a brother who talks back to his mother and shoplifts and smokes. But the adoption might not even go through. The lawyer wasn't sure. It could be that at the last minute my father will decide to claim me. He may decide that he doesn't want to relinquish his rights. But then what? There'd be plenty of places to hide in that big mansion. Behind all those boxes they'd never find me.
Breathe deep and steady, Jerome, count slow like the first movement of the Moonlight, slow and smooth
.

“Pleased to meet you,” Ginny says, holding out her hand.

Damon hesitates, then comes just close enough to shake it.

“Looks like we got a whole crew today,” Ginny says. “Anybody here who wants to work?”

“Yes, ma'am,” Damon says.

Ginny looks him up and down. “How old are you?”

“Fifteen.”

“You can help Tom,” she says to him. “There's some heavy stuff down there to haul up.”

I want to tell Ginny that you can't really trust him. He was just caught stealing and soon he has to go to court. But Damon is smiling and talking to Tom, acting all charming the way he does when he wants something. He says he'll be in tenth grade next year.

“What's your favorite subject?” Tom asks.

“Math,” he says.

I never even knew Damon had a favorite subject. Tom wipes his forehead with the back of his sleeve. “I'm not too good at math, but Ginny here, she's good with figures. Isn't that right, Gin?”

“I'm not too bad,” she says. She's squinting in the bright sun. “It'll be another hot day today,” she says. “We better get started.”

Tom and Damon go in through the side door. Ginny hands me and Monte sandpaper, sanding blocks, and masks, and we go into the mansion.

The small pieces of wood fit together just right, dark and light and dark, small flowers all around the whole room. I show Monte how to sand with rough sandpaper first, then medium, then fine to make the wood feel soft as silk. When we are done, Ginny gets some rags and we clean off all the dust.

“Take a break,” Ginny says, standing back. “Isn't this gorgeous?” She calls Tom. “Come up here and just look at this floor.”

Tom whistles. “Magnificent. Better get some serious varnish on it,” he says, “to protect it for the next hundred years.” He puts his arm around Ginny. “This is going to be the most beautiful school you've ever seen.”

It's not a school
, I want to tell her.
It's somebody's home. Me and Mr. Willie could fix it up and live here just fine.

“Jerome and his brother did most of the work,” she says.

I almost say
No, he's my cousin, remember, not my brother
, but Monte is smiling from ear to ear.

Tom takes out his wallet and hands me and Monte each twenty dollars. Monte is so surprised he can hardly talk.

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