'Just Surviving Another Day': A Teen's Struggle
Writer and student Detrice Jones reads from "Just Surviving Another Day," her semi-autobiographical story about a teen struggling with her parents' crack addiction. The story is featured in The Cocaine Chronicles, a new collection of short stories about the drug's impact on America.
From The Cocaine Chronicles
"Just Surviving Another Day"
By Detrice Jones
There was a knock at my door. Then a jingle and he was in. Cheap-ass lock. I looked at the clock and it was 3:36 a.m. He turned on the light and began his search. I watched him, hoping he wouldn't find it.
"Let me get that money and I'll pay you back in the morning," he said.
"No. I need it for lunch."
"I'll give it back to you in the morning."
Yeah right. How was he going to do that? If he didn't have any money now, he wouldn't have any in the morning. He came over and searched near me and around the bed. It wasn't next to me. I learned quickly that it was one of the first places they looked. They had just given me the money no longer than six hours ago. I guess they had smoked up the little cash they already had. Which meant if he found the money, I wouldn't have any for tomorrow or the next couple of weeks when somebody got paid again. He found it in the little chest on my dresser.
"I'll give it back to you in the morning," he said as he left the room and turned off my light, as if I would be going to sleep any-time soon. I lay there and worried about food and eating for tomorrow. I had to get hunger off my mind. When I finally fell asleep, it seemed like it had been two minutes before the alarm clock went off. I hit the snooze and went back to sleep. This repeated five times. I finally woke up an hour later. I knew even if I missed first period, I would have to make it to my next class because we had a quiz that I couldn't make up.
After I got dressed, I looked for my dad. Like always he was nowhere to be found. My mom was in the kitchen. She pressed her blackened fingers on the stove looking for crumbs, little rocks or anything that was round and white. I made some toast so I wouldn't starve for the whole day. I didn't say a word as I tried my best to maneuver around her.
"Where Ronnie at? I gotta go to school."
"He'll be back soon."
Denial. I knew better. I took my time to eat and looked for some loose money around the house. I found fifty cents in the big couch. Beatrice saw that and had a slightly jealous look in her eyes. What the hell could she smoke with fifty cents? I went outside to see if I could find my dad, Ronnie. He was in the driver's seat of our van. At that moment I wished I wouldn't have talked so much in drivers ed, stopped procrastinating, and got my license sooner.
"You gotta get to school?" he asked in a mumbled, half-sleep voice, without turning his head at all.
"Yeah, I'm late, but I gotta go to second period, at least."
"I'ma have to give you that money this afternoon," he said, still looking straight ahead like he was unable to move his neck in either direction.
He drove like I was Miss Daisy. It took at least thirty minutes to get there when it should only take fifteen. I went to the attendance lady to get a tardy note. She knew my name, homeroom number, and grade by heart. Sometimes she would already have my note ready for me when I got there. I was there in time for the quiz I didn't study for. Nobody could convince me that I got anything less than an A, though.
During our nutrition break, I bought a Snickers from the student store. I was . . . kinda hungry.
"How was Mr. Springsted's quiz?" my friend Jessica asked.
"Pretty easy. Make sure you know about the Great Depression. Dates, how it affected minorities, shit like that."
"You think you did good?"
"I don't know, maybe a B. Hopefully. I didn't study."
"You said the same thing last time and got an A."
"I was lucky. Hey, you got some money I could borrow?" She looked at me and hesitated. She was going to say no. I could see it in her eyes. She must have been thinking about the money I already owed her.
"I'll give it back, I promise. I left my money at home today. I'll pay you back with all the other money I owe you."
"I only got a dollar to spare," she said while handing me the money.
"That's cool. Thanks. I'll pay you back tomorrow," I said, knowing she would forget. She always did until I asked her for some more. The bell rang. "I gotta go to class, you know how Mr. Gordon is about people being late."
"I'll see you at lunch."
"Good luck on that quiz," I had to yell at her down the hall.
Mr. Gordon was known for not letting people in the class if they were tardy. You would have to wait in the hallway with all the other late people and not make too much noise. He would be madder if we made noise in the hallway when he was ready to let us in. He would ask us why we were late, then give us a lecture on why we shouldn't be late. Then, of course, there was the embarrassing walk back into class with the whole room watching. Later in the year I would learn to stay by the room during break. For now I had to damn near run to the class all the way on the other side of the tiny elementary school that they turned into a high school and packed us in like sardines.
Lunch took too long to get here. I always got hungrier when I thought that I might not be able to eat for the rest of the day, and a dollar wasn't gonna cut it. When I got through the crowded hallways to the place where my friends usually ate, they were almost done.
"How the f--- ya'll get ya'll food so early in that long-ass lunch line?"
They all laughed. They were something like little girls when I cursed. Coming from families with more money than mine, they were sensitive about that stuff. So cussing was always the fastest and easiest way to make them laugh.
"Why you always cuss so much?" April said.
"'Cause I can."
"Does your mom know you curse like that?" Erin asked, wiping cream cheese off her fingers.
"I cuss in front of her."
"She does," Keyona said.
"You bad," Erin said.
"Ya'll didn't answer my question. How did ya'll get ya'll food so early?"
"We got out of art class early," Erin said.
"One of ya'll got some money I can borrow?"
"You ain't got no money?" Keyona asked.
Obviously, I almost said with attitude. Why would I ask them for money if I had some? "I left my money at home." They were silent. "If each one of ya'll give me a dollar, I will be able to eat." Still, nothing. "I'll pay ya'll back tomorrow."
April gave me a wrinkled dollar out of her tight jeans.
Erin gave me four of the six shiny new quarters she had.
Keyona, reluctant to give me anything, asked, "Are you going to pay me back tomorrow?"
She turned to her purse so no one else could see and pulled out a crisp dollar bill.
"Thanks, you guys. I'll give it back," I said, not knowing if I could live up to that promise. I would definitely have to repay Keyona tomorrow. I went to the lunch line and saw Jasmine and Jessica—the Big Ballers, even though they wouldn't admit it. They had the best cars in school. I would trade shoes with them any day. I had already asked Jessica for some money earlier. I had to figure out a way to ask Jasmine for some money without Jessica getting mad.
"Jasmine, can I borrow some money?"
"I just gave you some money earlier."
"A dollar? I can't eat with a dollar."
Jasmine pulled out five dollars and handed them to me.
"Thanks, I'll pay --"
"Don't worry about it. You don't have to."
"Yeah. It's all good."
Good. I could pay back cheap-ass Keyona and eat tomorrow, and my parents wouldn't know that I had some money.
After school I went to basketball practice. If I didn't eat lunch today, I probably would have passed out.
"Point guards lead from the front." My coach yelled at me because I was the last to finish the suicides. I hated being a point guard because I was lazy. My coach was right, though. I was the leader and shouldn't be last. We had to do three sets of suicides today because two people were late and one person on the team couldn't come. We ran most of the time during practice. It was more like a track team than anything because our coach was not a basketball coach. So we ran, rarely ran plays out of his store-bought playbook, and almost never scrimmaged.
Basketball was my form of meditation. I got a chance to clear my mind and focus strictly on the game. I didn't have the energy or time to think about the bad things that were going on in my life. I didn't think about school, stupid high school boys, or my home life. I didn't have to think about being scared to get a drink of water in the middle of the night because my dad might be in his paranoid state and try to stab me, his own daughter, because he thought I was trying to get him. I didn't have to think about my mom taking back the lunch money she gave me because they spent the rest of hers. I didn't have to think about my little brothers and sister who might not be safe.
After practice Erin got picked up, while April, Keyona, and I caught the bus. I knew I didn't want to go home this early.
"April, can I go to your house?"
"I don't care," she replied.
At April's house I would be able to eat real home-cooked food instead of Top Ramen. When I got there, I had to wait for her to eat before I did. I couldn't just raid the fridge like I wanted to. We ate baked chicken, fried okra, and rice. I always waited until the last possible moment to go home, sometimes missing the last bus and spending the night over there. I didn't want to go home, not tonight.
"April, your friend can't spend the night again," I heard her mother whisper to her through the paper-thin walls. I made sure I made the bus that night. I guess I wore out my welcome. Instead of saying Welcome, it says Well . . . I guess you can come.
It was piercing cold high in the mountains where April lived. The always gloomy and foggy city didn't help either. April, fortunately for her, was immune to the cold. The bus was fifteen minutes late, and I didn't get home until 1:30 a.m.
My mom seemed like she hadn't moved since morning. Still trying to pick up rocks. My dad, on the other hand, was in motion. Slow motion. He had his favorite knife in his hand, creeping around the house like a scared zombie. There was no use in talking to either of them. I had a little money so I would be able to survive another day. I took a shower and tried to hide the money somewhere no one would look. I had to find a good hiding place through trial and error. This time I simply kept it in my pocket and buried my pants deep in my dirty clothes bin. I went to sleep without even thinking about homework. I had more important things to worry about. It was 2:15 a.m. and I went to sleep as soon as my body touched the bed.
There was a knock at the door. Then a jingle and she was in. I gotta fix that door! I looked at the clock and it was 4:58. She turned on the light and began searching. Why did my mom have to come in tonight? I knew she wouldn't be afraid of a teenage girl's dirty clothes bin.
"You got some money?" she asked while searching me, the bed, and the mattress.
"NO! Ronnie took my lunch money yesterday."
"I didn't even get to eat," I whined, trying to make her feel bad. After ten minutes of searching, she gave up, only glancing at my dirty clothes. With her brain in this state, she wouldn't be able to remember what I had on today. She turned off the light, as if I would be going to sleep anytime soon, and closed the door.
I would survive another day.
© Akashic Books 2005
Detrice Jones was born and raised in San Francisco and is currently an African-American Studies major at the University of California, Los Angeles. This story is her first published work, and is based on her own life experiences.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.