EAST HARLEM, NY 1983:
"In the hayouse sista.!"
"Cut it out Brown!"
Sister Modesta creaps along the dusty wood floors of the Father Divine orphanage with a wooden pointer in one hand smacking the palm of her other hand to the point where there was a blush mark caused by the blows.
Her eyes are distrustful of the brown boys before her, some of them shaking in fear in front of their beds for the pre-breakfast bed and space check.
Sister Modesta is a cantankerous woman in her late 60s who crosses herself when ever she catches herself cursing at one of the kids.
The youngsters stand at attention they know they can catch a wrap across their knuckles for no reason at all.
Slowly and methodically she glides, preceding more like a detective than the resident director of orphan boarding services.
The boys' eyes follow her every move. Some of them make faces at her, others are stoic.
The biggest fear is not a hand tapping or an ass whoopin' but that she won't take them downstairs when the social workers, adoption people and colored balloons come for the monthly Father Divine "People Fair," which is only days away.
No matter how mischievous any of the boys could be all of them always eventually complied with her wishes.
That is, all except one.
Without looking up from her list she mouths, "Dominguez,"
And again, this time more annoyed, "Dominguez?." bed
The gaze in each others eyes, some shrugging, some mad that they would suffer the consequences of his insolence and others laughing silently at yet another bed check that Ronaldo Dominguez was missing on purposely.
Her teeth grit, she slams her pointer to the ground and grunts,
She realizes she's losing her composure and picks her pointer up slowly.
She crosses herself and inspects the boys' stoic visages.
"Ok boys, this is the third day in a row that Dominguez has failed to be present for the check, the third day he's come up missing."
Ronaldo is the youngest boy in the orphanage, an aged seven year old who moves and operates more like he was a teenager. He never says much. He spends most of his time reading the standard issue Bible and sneaking in comic books that he sells to the rest of the boys who then hide them under their mattresses at night.
"I'm only going to ask you incorrigible young ruffians one time. You know what, forget it. I'm not even going to ask, you know what the question is."
Silence - the type of quietness that fills the room with the sound of car horns and loud conversations coming from outside.
"Ok, then. Nobody eats until somebody speaks."
"Shut up, you people, particularly our missing little friend, are causing Satan to ruin the peace in this house. No one is special! We are a group, a team a family. There's no "I" in any of those words,"
Jimmy Brown thinks he's hardcore. He's got a smart mouth, he like Ronaldo knows how to push her buttons.
"Any of those words except for fam..,"
"Brown, be quiet this instant. Unless… you know the whereabouts of Mr. Dominguez."
Now Brown's got jokes. "He went house shopping."
Loud laughter permeates the rectangular room.
"Oh now it's funny. It won't be so funny when your little stomachs are churning from hunger. Because you know, lunch can be skipped too and there are a lot of chores to be done. Oh and I can sure speak to Sister Sedaris in our education department and she can think of some academic exercises to stimulate your little brains. ."
More sighing and groaning.
"Why are you guys protecting one little crumb snatcher?"
Johnny Preston, like Dominquez, is too clever to be in the social welfare system.
"Uh sister…" he says. "No disrespect but has it occurred to you that none of us know where he is?"
"One of you, if not all of you, know where he is. Now I'm serious I'll call the charities and grocery stores and impose a food embargo on this place."
"What's a embargo?" mutters Johnson.
"Some stupid shit," answers Brown.
"Have something to say do we Mr. Brown?"
"Yeah, Sis, for me personally. Even if I knew I wouldn't tell you. Cuz' real niggaz don't snitch."
The hole hall erupts in an instigative chorus. "oooooooooh,"
Brown puffs out his chest. He's 14 and always one outbust away from getting bounced out. He likes it that way.
Beyond rehabilitation, according the Parish shrink, a lost cause. They don't give a fuck, I don't give a fuck, that's his credo.
Ain't got no mother, she's gone. Gone, gone, a car accident, Happened, right next to him on their way up from the South for a better life.
His father's still alive and kicking, a hustler from Brooklyn called Black Brown. Black for his dark skin and Brown for his surname. Black is serving life in Attica for a crime that no one in Harlem believes he did it. 'Lil' Black Brown' now has a chip on his shoulder, bitter because of his fortune and because he didn't inherit pops' menacing presence. Yellow as a bananna is what they call him. He hates it when they say, "what's up Lil white."
"I hope he don't come back," he screams, kicking and posturing as trainee priests remove him from the sleeping quarters.
Again a dead calm, an eerie state of soundlessness. The sister sighs heavily and finally Jackson, who like James Preston has the name Jimmy, spoke up. He goes by Jackson because nobody wants the same name as another unwanted, degenerate boy of color, which they all are. Jackson is the shrewed, sensible one.
"Honestly sister and I think I speak for the rest of the guys when I say that we have-honest to God – no idea where lil' Ronaldo is. But if my guess serves me right. He'll return in the late afternoon."
"He's a seven year old boy. Where could he have gone," the sister exclaimed, no longer angry but now worried and saddened.
The boys are taken aback at seeing a soft side of Sister Mo and suddenly it rubs off as they too become somewhat saddened themselves as they witness the long look on her face.
Now the quietness is uncomfortable.
"You boys get ready for breakfast," she snaps dismissively, more worried than ever.
The boys exit in a single file line for the slow quiet march to the Parish mess hall where they almost never just eat, but instead throw food at the girls who live on the other end of the building and come to the same hall to eat. Sista Mo' is in a bad mood though and they ancticipated a somber breakfast because of that. Short leash today.
Preston leans forward and whispers to Jackson, "You think he's alright?"
Jackson pats the ten-year old Preston on the head, smiling and then taking him in a headlock.
"I know he's alright, let's get some breakfast."
TO BE CONTINUED!