Hope the Size of Helium


It was one of those cool unisex names you hear spoken over a spunky three-year-old tomboy with ringlets– a name like Charlie, Jessie, Bobbie, and Jordan. To protect the innocent, I’ll call her Johnnie. The first time I met Johnnie is imprinted in my mind—branded even. I had just moved into a shotgun house on the other side of the tracks . . . You know the side where the white folks turn honey brown, and the corner store sells more lottery tickets and liquor than food.

My neighborhood was not frequented by family much, and my mother refused to visit in her sports car after my car was vandalized. The trunk busted open. The windows shattered.

We had one air conditioning unit and several rooms missing ceilings tiles. We had a refrigerator but no stove. For cooking purposes, I used an electric skillet to accommodate the microwave. The dark paneled walls left much to be desired, and unbeknownst to me, there was a rat infestation in the building at the end of my backyard. On this particular night in summer, I was hot and slightly pregnant. I had gone outside to sit on the porch and look up at the moon, feel the breeze blow upon my perspiring neck and try to cool off a bit.

As I sat there a man approached me and began to talk smack. He made sexual advances. His eyes shifting up and down and then his words began to make me nervous. He was darker than honey brown—a warm charcoal. It would be hours before my then husband would be home from his second job delivering pizzas. I couldn’t breathe. I eyed the distance from the steps by the sidewalk to my front door. My children were sleeping. Suddenly out of nowhere, Johnnie was standing behind the man and swifter than a jackrabbit she jumped up and grabbed his arm. I heard the click of her switchblade before I listened to her voice that bellowed, ‘Nigga touch this girl and I’ll kill ya. I’ll drain your blood all over the sidewalk. Understand? Now get on outta here.” I watched the man stagger on down the sidewalk mouthing words unheard of in my familiar circles.

I looked up at this savior–this woman who was smiling from ear to ear and began to thank her and explain how I wasn’t sure what I would have done if she hadn’t come along at just the right time. My eyes, however, were carefully watching the knife and her hands that slid it back down in her front pocket.

She smiled even wider, her gold front tooth catching the street light. “Girl, he knows better than to mess with Johnnie Portman! You saw his tired @##% get on down the street didn’t ya. HA HA!” “My name’s Johnnie, and you must be my new neighbor. Yep, that’s my little house next door.”

She pointed to the brown shotgun house on the left side of me with pride. She held her arms out and gave me a hug I will never forget. It was a hug that had several layers of good fat; the kind of fat that smells like cornbread and greens, fried pork fat and biscuits made with real lard. Her body grabbed me and enveloped me in a sandwich type style hold.

“Anyone around here try and mess with you just call oh Jonnie. I’ll make sure you’re okay. Alright?” Alright then, shoot. You don’t really need to be out here at night alone, though. Understand?”

I nodded. Smiled. Tilted my head down nervously then back up again.

“Girl, you not from around here are ya?”

“No, I must admit I’m not. Thanks for looking out for me.

The summer of 1991, Johnnie taught me things I would never learn at a college or a church house. Like the time I had to gas up for work on an early Sunday morning and was confronted by a man who was drunk, reeking and had apparently been in a fight by the blood and cuts on his hand and dress shirt. He didn’t look homeless. He had a nice suit coat and dress pants on. He tried to grab my purse and began asking for my money. I looked him directly in the eye, and in Johnnie fashion said, “I don’t have any money, and I’m on my way to work. Now go inside and clean yourself up. You’re drunk.” He looked stunned but headed towards the door of the corner store. He had obeyed me like the man Johnnie had told to get on down the road.

Somehow I had moved to this area of town and reached this place of poverty and loss through events that caused a chain reaction. I was uneducated, pregnant with a third, and at times depressed. Johnnie helped me get through many social issues and spiritual issues. She had a way of making me believe and hope. My place of poverty was her place of rescue. It was her new beginnings. Her glasses revealed things my glasses couldn’t see.

I’ll never forget the first time I was invited over to Johnnie’s house and ushered into her living room. She smiled her fantastic smile and took off her flip-flop to swat a cockroach that she declared was just greeting me at the door. As I made my way into the kitchen, I met her son and daughter who were both pleasant and excited to get to know me– their mysterious new neighbor. Johnnie was wearing a housecoat, and she had a comb stuck in her hair. She had attitude and big beautiful eyes. She also had a huge iron skillet, and in the midst of cockroaches crunching under my shoes she was carefully and meticulously frying up chicken Colonel Sander’s would have coveted.

Her daughter squashed a roach and looked at me and made a face. “I hate these bugs mama!” she said. I’m scared they will crawl inside my ears while I’m asleep or worse my mouth.” I shook my head and said how sorry I was while trying to refrain from leaping atop the table and screaming for the Orkin man to come and fumigate the place!

Johnnie brushed it off and acted as if she wasn’t aware of how many roaches were greeting her guest.

Instead, she ushered me back into the front room and began to show off her new black sofa and love seat. “I got this at rent a center. Just got rid of my tired little couch last week.” she pointed to her new glass coffee table and bragged. Johnnie was taking me on a tour of her little house like many who live in mansions would do. She loved it here. It was much better than the last place she lived. “We hardly ever hear any gunshots,” she said. I sighed, thinking about the sights and sounds of my new environment.

It was finally starting to sink in. I had been thrust into a social status I was not familiar with. Sure, at my ripe age of 23, I had felt eviction, gone without electric–scrounged for food and watched my husband turn the water back on from the main shut off. However, now I had entered a place I had not been raised in. I didn’t understand the language but thank Abba Father; I had a friend. This friend would help me survive, make me smile, love me for who I was and cause my children’s eyes to light up every time she made an appearance.

One night I told Johnnie that we should go to the store and gets some bombs to let off and kill all the roaches. I told her I needed some as well and would share with her. Even though I lacked ceilings and a stove, I had not seen any roaches. We carted her kids off to spend the night with family and sealed up the windows. The next morning after sweeping up the dead bugs and cleaning the floors, I was thanked by her daughter who told me she thought she would find it more comfortable to sleep in now.

A few months later, I asked her son and daughter what color they would like their rooms to be painted. The young man wanted blue. He was named after a great Italian poet, but I’m sure he nor his mother who placed the title on him knew this. Honestly, I didn’t at the time. This was before my art history class and English 101. Her daughter wanted a pink or purple room like most girls her age, and I set out to help them with what little I had to give.

One morning, after the bombing of bugs, Johnnie sent her daughter over to get me. She was frying country steaks, crispy potatoes and making buttery biscuits. “I’ve got plenty,” she said. I noticed a bottle of bleach and a mop and began to clean, sweep up dead roaches and press the bleach-filled mop hard against the linoleum until its dark sticky brown turned a speckled robin blue. Johnnie’s boyfriend came in from the bedroom to the kitchen and looked as surprised to see a white gal mopping his floor as he did the blue color that had laid dormant underneath.

He smiled and said, “Wow, it looks nice in here. Johnnie introduced us. He grabbed his food and kissed his woman and then made his way back down the hall where he would collide on the mattress in front of the small t.v. Johnnie’s kids ran from their rooms to the kitchen, back and forth bringing me pictures they’d colored, grades they had made that they were proud of. Her young son had won a creative writing contest for young authors. Maybe she knew more about his name than I had given her credit.

My children ended up playing with her children and their cousins. Family warned me to keep my sons away from the children there, but what harm could possibly come from children running through dirt passing the hours away with make-believe games? Were we different from them? No, and our children found ways in the midst of poverty to laugh, hide, kick balls, run, play and eat their share of cold leftover pizzas. No color lived there.

Johnnie knew about life, and she knew about death. She’d lost family to senseless drugs, and yes, shots fired. One night, Johnnie pointed to each house on the street, and one by one informed me of who lived there. She knew who was hooked on crack or some other substance. Who was a God-fearing man and who was a nosy woman.

She named whose dirty kids those were on the corner and how whenever they came to her house she’d give them baths because she never knew if they had water or not. Johnnie was cleaning things more critical than floors.

Dinners were shared many a night, and her food stamps supplied a few staple items when things were lean. One night after Johnnie had bought a lottery ticket she looked at me and said, “When I win the lottery, I am going to get off these little food stamps.” I said, “Well, Johnnie with millions you could eat dinner in a different country every night.” She had no idea what even a million dollars was. She lacked math skills but not love. She brought me half of her government cheese, and I gave her half my towels I found at a yard sale. She brought my boy’s soda pops and Cheetos and hugged them in Johnnie fashion and when the day came that I went into labor Johnnie came over and cleaned my house. She folded my clothes and picked up the toys. When my relatives and family members showed up to see the baby, they were quite surprised to see Johnnie embracing my Samuel in cornbread pork fat fashion. Her eyes lit up as she looked down at my son like he was part of her.

Anytime she came by to visit she would walk in and look me in the eye, that gold tooth shining and exclaim, “Give me my lil white baby!”

Gosh, I loved her. How I miss her. I wonder if her son is writing. I wonder if her daughter is a mother now. I can still taste her chicken, her words, and her heart. She forever changed my view of the world and my voice as a writer. Wherever you are tonight Johnnie, thank you for saving me on a hot summer night and for sharing all your wealth with me! Your wealth was what helped me get through many rough nights, and when I packed up and moved back across town into a lower-middle-class subdivision, the smallest unkempt house on the street, I was ecstatic. Every room had ceilings, and the backyard was fenced in. There were no dilapidated buildings with rats or mice–no bugs greeting friends at the door. The backyard had a bright green substance called grass, and the front porch was safe enough to sit on most nights at any hour and gaze up at the moon. However, no one brought me or my children golden smiles, packaged cheese, and hope the size of giant helium balloons.

Photo: incargade.com

Breathe! Awake and Live!

When I came out of surgery, I came out fighting. They kept giving me more and more Dilaudid (Oxycodone type drug) until finally, I stopped breathing. The nurse, along with my husband and sister, kept shaking me and repeating, “Breathe Bonnie (Tekoa)! Breathe!” I would jolt and gasp like a person who had been underwater for a very long time. I would awake with ice in my mouth, coughing and spurting to come back from the anesthesia and the drugs to stop the pain. Again, I’d hear, “Wake-up Bonnie (Tekoa)!” Each jolt would remind me that I was still here. I’d grasp my face with my hands in Edvard Munch fashion.
It’s sort of the same when we are depressed and hurting. When a person is depressed nothing is funny. Nothing has life. No song or laughter can bring you out of it. No funny movie, no beautiful painted sky–no amount of food or sex, or recognition or people showering you with their love can heal it. No money. No lover. No fame. No job promotion. No new shiny material object. Just empty spaces and a vast space that faintly beats under water.

In that darkest hour, we desperately need people to jolt us and shake us and tell us to breathe! “Wake-up Bonnie!” I can still hear my sister’s voice. My husband said the nurse told him they could wait in the waiting area until they took me to my room, but he said no, I want to see her now. The nurse had threatened to restrain me because apparently, I was thrashing. Crashing. When my husband and sister showed up, they took over caring for me.

Coming out of a coma-type state in the natural and the spiritual requires a team of resuscitators and oxygen. We all need people to fight for us.
Depression equals a person who feels like a giant blob that’s filled with pain and bleeding. People try and touch us, but it hurts. We look in the mirror and see no worth or reason to try. The voices are loud. They scream failure, loser, nobody, zero, fat, ugly, stupid, and worse. The pain and the sounds make us thirsty for any type of medicine that numbs. We do not want to come up for air or look in the mirror. We do not want to reflect on our wasted existence.
We just want to check-out.
Yeshua said we should love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We need to dive up for air and pray for His healing touch. Sometimes it’s instant, and the demons flee. Sometimes it takes weeks, years even to begin to wash the stained, dirty skin and pat ourselves dry, add the soothing creams, scented lotions, and powders. It takes time to find the energy to lie on a crisp, clean sheet and hold ourselves because everyone else’s fingers from this moment in time have bruised us, set us on fire or pained us to the point that we have welded gates of iron. We hide behind walls and become skittish around those we don’t trust. Which is everyone?
One morning we wake up and stare into the looking glass, and we realize we do not even know the person staring back at us! We ask ourselves a question.
“Who am I?”
“Why was I created?”
“Who will clean my teeth, my face, my fingernails if not me?
“Who will be there when they shovel dirt on my bones and whose life can my dirty hands hold?”
“Can the one who spoke it all and formed me in the womb speak to me while I am so distraught and blue?”
Breathe! Awake! Detox! Heal! Become who you were created to be. I’m shaking you now, and I am screaming, “Breathe!”

Didn’t all the great ones retort with pitiful pleas? Awe, Ruth, a woman my mother named me after. Listen to her words.
“At this, she bowed down with her face to the ground. She asked him, “Why have I found such favor in your eyes that you notice me–a foreigner?” (Ruth 2:10). Notice her? The whole town had noticed her, including this wealthy landowner. Let’s look at a few others and listen to their faithless voices.

“But Lord,” Gideon replied, “how can I rescue Israel? My clan is the weakest in the whole tribe of Manasseh, and I am the least in my entire family!” (Judges 6:15).
But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11).

But David said to Saul, “Who am I, and what is my life or my father’s family in Israel, that I should be the king’s son-in-law?” (1 Samuel 18:18).
Awe, but of course.
Ultimately they rise, and their voices are heard.

On day two of my hospital stay, a nurse came in and yanked my oxygen hose from my nose and said, “You don’t need this!” She was gruff and didn’t smile like the previous gal. She said I’ll be back to remove your catheter. Then afterward when I felt the urge to go on my own, I rang my call light but was unable to make it several times until they finally brought a bedside commode, and by the next day, I was able to make it to the restroom. Sometimes our cheerleaders are rough and rigid. At times they may even seem cruel, but I assure you they may be just what the doctor ordered to get us alert and awake.
To all my friends out there who have been in a funk, broken, bruised, hurting, unable to breathe on your own, I ask you to stand in front of the mirror and repeat after me.
“I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well” ( Psalms 139:14).
And Breathe!

Blackberry Jam

You see the person you loved,
The one that loved you back.
They’ve quoted the same book and sat in the same pew.
You know– the right seats.
The ones up close where the “important” people sit.
What happened?
They smile a plastic drawn on mess as you pass.
No whispered hellos.
Is there still love there along with the broken pieces?

What did you say when you caught your “Friends” stealing a piece of your pie?

The one you baked to a golden brown.

Sugar egg washed face.

They lie, as they wipe the filling from their mouth.

They cackle.

You chirp.

Broken words sent with arrows piercing souls or is it reversed?

Is it because one of you is so smart? Smarter than the other.

I think not.

One of you knows the answers to life?

Have you figured out how one should act at a wedding?


They all laughed at you when you said the earth was round.

You never laughed at them.

The Father pointed out that you did, and you washed more egg off your face.

They said you’d fall off the earth and lose your crown.

You lost that years ago.

A broken Tierra tilted sideways.

They whispered about you then too.

Only they looked different.

Younger, blunter, but not as cruel.

They said you were different, strange,

Morbid even.

The Sun said that he knew what was in man and so he didn’t follow them.

Herod came out to see a miracle, but my Father’s, Son, Yeshua wouldn’t tap dance for him, so they put him in a royal robe and threw pieces of hate, mockery, and even their spit.

He created their spit– used it once to heal blind eyes.

He mixed the earth He created them with into the substance.

Oh, the pride of man.

Run and get your state ticket to the fair, she said.

But I’m going to pick some blackberries and heat up the oven again.

I think I’ll kick up my feet and open my mouth wide–fill it with a cobbler.

A blackberry pie.

Scrape off the sugar washed face and fold up the sun.

The earth’s too round for me to run.

Too flat for me to spin.

We all sin.

We all fall short.

There are no perfect men at the election booth.

Even the Son said, “Why do you call me good?”

He has taken off my soiled dress and given me a robe of Righteousness.

I straighten my crown and cleaned my teeth of all the blackberry seeds.

I strap on my boots and pull up my pants.

I walk out to the garden and eye the tares among the wheat.

“Let them grow,” He said.

Walk among the living.

Let the dead bury the dead.

I walk into the kitchen, and I stick two fingers inside the jar scraping the side and tasting the blackberry jam.

It’s sticky sweet.