Angel Wings

Updated: March 11, 2011, 10:36 AM ET
By Susan Straight | ESPN The Magazine

Jeffrey Smith for ESPN The Magazine.

When they called me, and I was driving to the hospital, all I could think of was chicken.

Because I didn't really understand what happened, and they said he was at the drive-through window of Jack in the Box, and he didn't like Jack. He always wanted chicken -- WingStreet or KFC.

All those chickens that died for him. I would always think of my aunt's yard, down in Houma, La., where we stayed one summer, and she made me go out there with her and get the chicken every time. She said I was too California and she would put some country in me. We had to wring that chicken around like a toy, and the neck would stretch like a swan's. Feathers. Everywhere.

Subway, Burger King, Popeyes. Those boys ate wherever they could find after tournaments. You know how everybody thinks they're lazy and they don't study. They were practicing or playing every night. Cynthia -- you know how he had his books up there in the bleachers and the boys would tease him. And the coach would say, "You better not play like a honors white boy."

Don't run from the cops, dirtbag, and you won't get shot. Every time. It's never the officer's fault, according to the cousin and the welfare mom.

He wasn't running. But don't hide behind tinted windows in the back seat of a big SUV and claim you didn't see the officer, right? Why were they out so late anyway? Banger time.

Good shoot. He would have probably robbed somebody later that night, and they prevented that. I don't care what his family says.

They told me not to read your comments, my friend Cynthia and Coach Rennard. They said they would take my computer away. You all would like the story better if I didn't have a job. Welfare queen. Section 8. You think I shouldn't be "articulate" enough to type back. I type all night at Neonatal. Blood pressure and heart rate and Apgar. You don't know anything about him. They told me not to look but I am at lunch, which means 10 p.m. in Neonatal, and I went to the computer at the station and looked at this article. His face. I saw what you wrote.

The first time I held a white baby, I had been in Neonatal for about a week. We always had Latino babies for some reason. That white newborn's skin was so many colors. Mottled, they call it. Cream and red and purple and even green, where she had a bruise from the IV.

He was almost 2 by then, Cynthia. His skin was so dark and perfect, and when he was older and I rubbed baby oil into his arms, when he was first playing ball, when he was about 7, he would sweat on the court at the park and the sun was on his back and it was a rainbow. Like when the oil floats on rain puddles and you see all the colors. Like a butterfly wing -- his back. The shoulder blades. They call them angel wings.


See, they called him homie because he was a gangbanger.

Check out their names. Hilarious. And they were riding in a Navigator, so tell me they're just poor, neglected kids from the ghetto.

They were near USC. That's not the ghetto.

Come on. That's as ghetto as it gets. Probably getting recruited by Reggie Bush! Ha! Who gave them the Navigator?

No, his father is not in jail. We had Tenerife when I was 21. He married another woman after we got divorced, and he has two little boys. People joke about it in Neonatal when women come in as someone's third wife and he already has a 25-year-old son. You call it starter wife, trophy wife when you do it. You call it something else for us.

Sitting here typing and reading and I imagine you drinking something, but I don't know what. Because you all sound crazy. But that's my son you're writing about. That's my son you keep saying those things about.

They told me to feed him, his coaches. All those chickens. Wash his clothes. All those shirts and shorts at every camp, all those colleges giving him shirts. Every tournament they get a shirt.

He got to be 6'6" and it was decided. Like I didn't have any say.

I once heard Ralph Sampson never wanted to play ball. He liked to sew.

Be a better story if I was 14 when I had him. But I was 21. I had just got my AA in nursing.

No. Oh, hell no, Cynthia, I am not giving her what she wants, some story about a promising young athlete in the wrong place at the wrong time. No way. They were ordering food. Someone tripped out and thought they were robbing the place because it was midnight.

I am not telling that wrong-place story, because it wasn't the wrong place, so I told the reporter to take her microphone and her glasses outta here before I break 'em both.

She's talking 'bout whose car were they riding in and why didn't we move out of the old neighborhood and why were they out so late. Get this bitch out of my face. Why doesn't she have to move outta Los Feliz or Studio City or wherever she lives? How come we always have to move?

You got priors? You got priors? Damaris said the cops kept yelling at them in the drive-through. And Tenerife was in the back, and they couldn't see him 'cause of the window tint, and then when he opened the door the cell phone fell out and they thought it was a gun.

Black Razr. I hate that thing.

All I can think is how narrow the drive-through is and how it's full of exhaust and grease and the vent where the air blows out and how they couldn't move, couldn't go backward or forward 'cause there were five LAPD cars and how Tenerife must have been trying to call me. Trying. I just took two more. I know I had some wine. I don't care.

Subway, Carl's Jr., Mickey D's, Popeyes. One night Tenerife said he liked the wings because you couldn't fake wings. Everybody ate tenders or the sandwich and he said, "Wings ain't a composite of bogus parts mixed with cardboard or whatever." He and the other boys sat at those little tables -- almost like desks -- after practice and all those tournaments. Deontrae, Domanic, DaJuan, Damaris and mine.

I heard this one white mom from one of those Orange County teams one night. They were eating at Carl's too. OC Elite, and we were Above the Rim. She was like, "Oh, my god, those ghetto names. What are those women thinking?"

Damaris is from the Bible. It's a woman's name, but his mama didn't think of it like that.

I went back and looked at the tournament program. Her team was all Joshua and Jeremiah and Jeremy. From the Bible. Two Kyles and a Hunter.

I would have told her Tenerife is in the Canary Islands. I saw a picture of it when I was 10, and I imagined I was going there.

I don't care what everyone else says. It was a good shoot. He gets paid leave and he deserves it. No one knows how hard it is to be a cop except another cop. They get ambushed every day by some dirtbag. Good shoot. That's it.

Like he was an antelope? I saw what that reporter wrote. Clean-cut and articulate, according to the college coaches recruiting him. Hesitant to shoot sometimes. But a team player. People were asking about the money, talking about that car. He didn't have his own car because the NCAA says his uncle can't give him a car, or a ride, or buy him Mickey D's. His coach can't either. Nobody can except me, and I can't because I'm at work.

You wanted me to say that? You feel better now? You're asking me whether he had an agent or anybody gave me money? I work for USC. For the hospital. He didn't want to come to USC, because I worked there. He wanted to go to Arizona, and I was scared because it was so white. You all didn't say a word about Tide and Clorox and how many nights I sat up by that damn dryer.

I hear about them all the time in the cafeteria at the hospital. Fellowships, scholarships, research grants. They can get money. A professor can give them money. He can marry one of those young girls that he had in class. They can go on an anthropology trip to Peru and they can fall in love and he can pay for it and no NCAA can say a thing.

Somebody went to Madagascar and researched fishing tribes.

We'd told him since he was 12, and I had to work, and he had a tournament: Three's a gang. Don't matter if it's your cousin or your team. Three's a gang. If it's three of you, take two cars. Get a ride with somebody's mama, their uncle. But never go four. Never. You know I told him, Cynthia.

I even had Tavares talk to him from New Orleans. "Same way down there, Pops?" Tenerife asked him. Tavares told him, "No, New Orleans has its own crazy, but I came up in LA. Stop jokin' around," he said. "It ain't play. Never go three or four. Wait for your coach."

Tavares came to watch him once he hit sophomore year. He came for two weeks of Christmas tournaments. Tenerife was 6'5" then. UCLA and USC looking at him. But he wanted Arizona. When Tavares said, "Boy, I woulda killed to go to UCLA," Tenerife said, "Then you shoulda played better. You shoulda took your own advice."

He was in the gym for the past eight years of my life. He did his homework in the gym. They want me to say he came home and went out to the driveway to shoot hoops by the light of a garage bulb until after midnight or whatever, but that is for entertainment. He didn't. He was in love. He texted some girl half the night. I never met her. She lived in Arizona. He met her at a tournament. I think he was going to Arizona because he was in love.

You didn't even kno this young brotha and he was my homie. He didn't deserve 2 die like this and RIP 4ever LUV U

I know all I need to know. Look at some of the pics of him he's wearing a red cap he's a banger

That's Arizona fool they gave him that hat FU

He was on TV two times. When they played for CIF state finals. You all yelled and hollered at him, Shoot Shoot Shoot the damn ball! The coaches yelling and his club coach yelled and Tavares probably yelled when he saw the tape because I sent him the DVD to New Orleans because his wife didn't let him come out because their boy was sick and she was pissed so I sent it to him. Like you all know him. Like he can hear you. Like he owes you because you have money on the game. Or just because you can see he should shoot. I watched by myself. Every time. On the couch.

Cynthia: I can't stop thinking about his braids. Nobody can braid their own hair. Every Sunday when I washed those socks, like white puppets tangled up in the dryer, I sat him down on the floor beside the couch and whatever game was on, we watched it and I redid his braids. His hair down to the bones on top of his shoulders. I had him for two hours. He couldn't move. I didn't let those girls do it, the ones who were always trying to get him to let them, to have him and Damaris and Deontrae come over so they could get a baller. He sat right here. Cynthia, if you saw him. The babies at work, I can hold them in my hand. But his feet hung off the end of the bed. All the IV drips. Two days.

Tavares: Here are the letters. And the shirts. I folded them. You better wear them sometimes. If I see you don't, I will haunt your ass. You think I'm playing. You make your two boys wear them when they get big enough. They won't be tall as him. But you better.

Cynthia: I'm leaving this for you. My auntie Rachelle down in Houma told me one time after my mama died she was the last branch on the tree cause we had left for LA. I can't do this. I'm sorry. I got morphine from work. He never woke up. He never got to see me again. He was calling me. I know it. Give the box to Tavares. I know you're coming by tonight with chicken because that's how you do. I'm sorry. But we see them die at work and they're so small. If you saw him. My baby. His feet.

Susan Straight's latest novel, Take One Candle Light a Room, was named one of the best of 2010 by The Washington Post and Kirkus Reviews. Her book Highwire Moon was a finalist for a 2001 National Book Award. She was born in Riverside, Calif., where she lives with her family.