Grandma's Girl

After getting out of that other game and coming back inside, my mom and I visited The Elders and The VIPs far less often. She wasn’t aware this other game had taken place, so it was difficult explaining the crowds of people greeting us and pressing dollar bills into my hands as we made our way to the apartment.

That’s when Granny, the second oldest Elder, took over.

At the time, Granny lived on the opposite side of the city, worlds away from the block where that other game took place. She and her six siblings—The Elders, collectively—grew up in a neighborhood similar to the one where that other game was played, a former slum where restaurants, coffee store chains, office buildings, and a Catholic high school for boys now stand. Growing up, she and her four sisters used to play the same game I did. Their two brothers and an endless supply of male cousins were the VIPs.

The Elders made tons of money over the years and split it up amongst themselves. When they started having kids and their kids starting having kids, some of them were taught that other game, too. A few made it out, but not with their minds intact. Most others didn’t make it out at all.

“I can’t believe she played that game with you, you’re just a kid!” Granny said after I came to her with all the money I’d made. Up to that point I’d just been holding the cash, unsure of what to do with it all. Spending it freely would have raised a lot of questions and brought some serious attention to that other game.

She plotted vengeance as we figured out how to get rid of the money. We consulted one of my five uncles for guidance. Unk has much experience with the other side, cleaning up the aftermath of their messes in court. He told me I’d avoided a big one playing that other game, but the good thing is I made at least 50 times my weekly allowance, if not more.

“Everything from here on out is small money, but never forget that you, as a person, are priceless,” he told me.

Ultimately, we gave the money away to a nearby church where our family has a dedicated pew.

After we got rid of the money, Granny asked me to give up the deets. If we’re going to beat them at their game, she said, I have to spill their secrets.

I thought I was already out of that other game, but Granny said that other game had just begun. I told her there weren’t many secrets to spill; nobody dared touch me in that other game, unless it was to hand me their money afterward. The biggest secret was one of my own: I’d won the game through reading Cuzzo’s mind.

Granny didn’t seem shocked and wasn’t in awe like the others were when I told them I could read minds. When I told her they thought I was an angel because of it, she guffawed, slapping the table to balance herself.

“You’re no angel, you’re a very lucky and smart little girl.”

Playing that other game, I had forgotten I was only seven.

“If you spend enough time with someone, after a while it is like you’re reading their mind,” Granny said.

“I can do it, too, you know. In fact, I taught The Elder who got you into this other game how to do it. That b*tch.”

Granny convinced me to disconnect from Cuzzo’s mind and suggested I start reading hers instead.

I was skeptical at first. Then again, I was skeptical of most adults after playing that other game.

The way Granny spit it, through observing, learning, and implementing her ways, I could win the game this Elder started with me.

“I don’t know why they chose you,” Granny said, “but they chose wisely, ‘cause I’m on your side. They won’t always listen to a little girl like you, but they’ll for damn sure listen to me.”

Once I accepted her offer, I was all Granny’s responsibility.

We connected immediately.

We stay out of the streets, inside is safer. Hoodrats disgust us, but their antics are amusing. We don’t listen to rap music, just the Top 50 charts and Bing Crosby or Nat King Cole if we’re feeling frisky—and only at a reasonable volume. We watch Matlock at 9 am, our block of soaps operas at noon, Oprah at 4 pm, and Golden Girls at 8 pm, and the news between shows. We go to bed early and wake up before dawn. We stock up on prunes and milk of magnesia to stay regular. We’re not big on flashy gifts or wads of cash, we prefer compliments on our cooking instead. Oh, and we take sh*t from no one, especially that b*tch next door that keeps letting her dog use our front lawn as a toilet.

Reading Granny was the anti-hood. As often as I could, I’d let her know how boring I found the new rules of the game.

“It’s more exciting than being dead in the streets,” she’d say. Point taken.

One day, Granny surprised me with an announcement: we were finally gonna get back into this gangsta sh*t I kept talking about—and getting hit with a fly swatter for for saying “gangsta sh*t.”

Unbeknownst to me, Granny was regularly calling shots over the phone, dispatching orders to her siblings and nieces and nephews. This day, she decided to let me back in on the operation.

Granny would offer up a tough scenario and ask my opinion on what I’d do if I had a limitless supply of money to fix it. At first, I thought she was taking scenes out of the soap operas she devours. Over time, I realized the scenarios she’d offer up were nothing like what was on TV at the time.

Most often, the two of us would figure out how to divvy up that closet of stacks Cuzzo showed me. We put our vote on which families in The Elders’ and VIPs’ hood would get their light bills paid that month. Whatever was left over at the end of the month, we saved a portion of for ourselves and funneled the rest into that church with the family pew.

One of the toughest scenarios we encountered was that of the junkie mom.

Junkie Mom was one of the many people from that hood who bet for me in that other game. Granny told me The VIPs were ready to wipe her out because she owed them a lot of money and hadn’t paid up.

“What would you do?” Granny asked me.

I told her I would spare the junkie, not only because I personally got a lot of money from her, but also because I knew she had five small kids living in a one-bedroom apartment there. If The VIPs wiped her out, who would take care of her kids?

Granny was pleased. “You might be an angel after all,” she said, and delivered our verdict in a call to The Elders.

Junkie Mom was spared, but wound up dying anyway a few years later from a drug overdose. Her five kids grew up and joined The VIPs.

Soon after Granny let me in on the higher level aspects of that other game, she moved in with my immediate family. I was fed more rules of the game daily: introductions are everything, so make sure they’re good ones; fear no one; be clever—but not a smart a$$, nobody likes a smart a$$—and hungrier than the rest to get ahead; getting A’s and winning awards is the way out of difficult situations; if somebody feels some type of way about that, 1. F*ck ‘em and 2. Give ‘em more reasons to talk and be jealous; every time you leave the house, remember you’re representing more than yourself: you’re representing me, my kids, and your cousins, too; carry yourself well and always be prepared; as often as you can, show people we’re not part of that other game’s team.

Et cetera, et cetera.

I took vigorous mental notes over the years, but the downside to receiving all that wisdom so young and so often is that one gets jaded quickly.

Hearing about everyone else’s issues and trying to solve them while also keeping grown folks from coming at each other’s necks got very messy and exhausting, even with Granny on my side. By the time I was thirteen, I felt like I’d sacrificed my childhood so ungrateful people could live better. I was all the way over it and wanted out of The Life, but couldn’t see a way out. The Life was all I knew.

Around this time, my middle school received the results of a standardized test taken a few months earlier. Even though my grades had started to slip from the stress of playing that other game, my English teacher came up to me excitedly, saying I scored the highest of all the students in the school.

My unenthused demeanor concerned her. She wanted to know why scoring yet another win wasn’t cause for excitement.

I told her some of what I got into after school hours with Granny and how I was feeling the burnout from it. She asked why I was put in that other game, and I told her my history and the battles of my youth. My middle school English teacher was the first non-family member to label what I was part of: a gang.

I burst out laughing, not seeing the connection between TV and movie gangsters and Granny and myself. I saw none of our family in shows or movies like that.

Very seriously, Teacher asked if I wanted out.

“It’ll be tough since you live with one of the major players,” she said. “Tough, but not impossible.”

After consulting with outside resources (“No cops,” she promised), she came back the following day and asked if I wanted to participate in a study.

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