Mom saw a snake.
It got bigger with each telling. Went from about the length of a spatula to as long as her leg. It went from striped to hooded, went from a greenish yellow to pitch black. My stepfather told her she had stumbled on a hose sitting in the backyard in the grass, but she deemed the backyard a menace and refused to let us go there.
The tenants before us had emptied their house in the backyard. Stacked up against the garage was a rickety pile of trash and broken furniture. There was grass that came to my knees, rocks and boards from all over the neighborhood. Litter from gang members who had cut through our yard. There were rusted-out car parts and proud, standing weeds, and hidden in the grass were broken beer bottles and rusted cans.
The yard was a pit of sharps and stones, trash and other horrors, with one lone pear tree and a lilac bush as its only gems. Lilacs are my mother’s favorite flower, and one day I went back there and cut her some.
She kissed my cheek. And grounded me.
My stepfather was the only one allowed to go back there, and even then it was only to take out the trash. The yard was so bad that our dog started shitting on the sidewalk that led to the back where they parked the cars. The neighborhood knew how bad our backyard was, and we knew if anyone went back there and hurt themselves, our landlord would come down on us.
One day he came to pick up a check and saw the wreck back there. He knew he was liable. So he brokered a deal with my mom. Cut in the rent and it was now our job to clean up that wasteland.
She bought a bunch of hamburger. Bought a few cases of beer. Gathered up some hot dogs and a few bottles of soda, and she had my stepdad pull out his grill. She invited the neighborhood to a backyard BBQ.
And when they got there, she handed them a rake.
A Latin King came by with a truck. My friend Cage’s dad and my stepdad loaded the junk into it and the truck disappeared. The women from the block took rakes and combed through the grass, pulling out glass, stones, and rusted cans. From the wicked grasses they dug up gnarled branches the kids then snapped into pieces and stacked. They pulled boards out of the grass and threw them in a pile, gave the kids hammers and we pulled the rusted nails out.
We piled bags of trash in the King’s truck when it came back for a second trip. We handed snapped branches and big stones to gang members with slicked-back hair and chain wallets, with bowie knives and even a handgun stuffed in their belts.
A big powerful mower, fire-engine red that spat black smog and sounded like a belching dragon, made the first pass. A second smaller mower, a mulcher, ground the long blades of grass into bits.
Burgers were done and everyone ate. Downed beers and devoured chips. A King brought firecrackers, and my mother made us go inside while he lit them. More beer, a few dozen hot dogs, and back to work.
The fence opposite Cage’s yard looked like a hockey player’s teeth with missing boards and jagged shards of wood. Hammers were given to the dads and the broken boards were pulled out.
The truck came back. This time with lumber and paint. The fence was fixed, and the kids painted the new boards and the old.
I remember at one point looking at the families and the gangsters around my yard and wondering what was happening. Was this scary or heartwarming? My mother had few good things to say about the criminals who ran our neighborhood, but while she flipped burgers and handed out beers, she flirted with a man I once saw stomp a homeless guy into the ground.
The day was surreal. The night even more so, for it turned into a two-yard party when the sun fell from the sky.
Cage’s yard was for the kids. We drank Kool-Aid and ate popsicles. Cage and I watered the grass, so he could come out that night and dig up earthworms, so he could fish in the lagoon the next day. My sister played Boy George on Meek’s boombox and my little brother played on a rusty swing that swung back and tipped, its legs bucking up from the ground to drop again with a shudder. We were allowed to bring beer from Cage’s basement over to my yard, but we were not allowed to stay, and the adults hid their joints until we were gone.
One of the Kings brought over a water mattress and filled it from the hose. We took turns jumping on it and riding the waves. A few minutes after sundown, Cage sprayed it with the hose and we began to jump, sliding from one side to the other.
When the Latin Kings left our yard, it was the perfect place to raise a family. They passed a decree amongst themselves that no one could cut through our yard and litter any more. And before they left, the most talkative, boldest of them, the one my mother had spent the day flirting with, came over to me and wrapped his arm around me to whisper in my ear.
My mother asked me what he said, that night when she put me to bed, as if she had seen some sort of predator in my life. A tempting snake whispering in my ear of a life she didn’t want for me. I said I couldn’t say, that he would get pissed if I told her. When she left I checked under my pillow just to make sure.
“Take this, little man. Get good with it. You’re our kind of kid. We will see you soon.” I remember how cool he was about it when he was leaned over me, and how nonchalant he was stuffing it in my back pocket.
I remember when the lights were turned off in my room and the door left open to the living room, I pulled his knife out from under my pillow and opened it. I touched the edge and cut myself just a little.