The Chance and Me Chronicles: Brother Morris and the Cigar Box

The second in a series of short stories about a young man and his brother Chance who grew up in the 1970's and 80's.

Makes a deal
With a smile
Knowing all the time that his lie's a mile
He's Misstra Know-It-All

-He's Misstra Know-It-All

Stevie Wonder 1973


The lady across the street paid my brother Chance a dollar to take out her garbage twice a week.  After a while, he figured out a way that he could make fifty cents a week without having to do anything.  He subcontracted out the job to me.

Mrs. Shipley was a widow. She was old as dirt.  She had to be at least 90 years old.  She and her dog were both blind, so Chance figured out that I could go into the house and get the garbage and take it out on Tuesdays and Thursdays with her being none the wiser. He made me wear his jacket so the dog would get his scent and not tip off the old lady that there was a trespasser in the midst. It worked like a charm.

Chance didn’t want his garbage duties to cut into his playground time. But he also didn’t want to give up his Now & Later, Lemonheads and Boston Baked Beans habit either.  I started collecting my quarters in an old cigar box I found in an empty lot three doors down. My birthday was around the corner so I wasn’t really thinking about buying anything special with my earnings. I was content to just let the coins stack up, that was until a week after my birthday.

The best gift that I got on my birthday was permission from Moms to walk the six blocks to Vine’s Records on Preston and Broadway all by myself.  I made my solo maiden voyage on my seventh birthday, July 24, 1973.  Before then, the only times I could go was if Moms or Pops took me.  Chance wasn’t interested in music, so he never went with us.  I loved music, but didn’t have any albums of my own.  All I had was the radio and Pops’ collection - Ahmad Jamal’s Live at the Pershing, The Staple Singers Be Altitude:Respect Yourself and stuff like that. 

The owner of Vine’s Records was Brother Shabazz. He was a Muslim.  I don’t think his government name was Shabazz. I’m pretty sure that his conversion to Islam and the adoption of his non-slave name had something to do with El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz - Brother Malcolm X to the uninitiated.  He was a former Marine who had saw action in Vietnam.  He inherited the record store from his grandfather.

He was a big brother.  He always looked like he had just got back from the gym - muscles bulging from beneath whatever shirt he was wearing.  He had a teenie weenie afro and a beard that looked like it was still trying to figure out what it wanted to be when it grew up.

A week after I got my walking papers, I was on a mission. I became a fixture at the store. On this particular day, I was headed down to the record store for the seventh day in a row. As I pushed the door open, the familiar ring of the chimes above the door frame welcomed me inside.

“As-Salaam-Alaikum,” said Brother Shabazz.

“Wo Lake-em Salon,” I replied.

I could never pronounce the response to the Muslim greeting.  I did my best, but it was different every time.  The only way that I remembered it at all was because it kinda sounded like “Bacon and Salami”.  I’m glad I never told that to Brother Shabazz. 

Over the last year or so of visits to the store when Moms or Pops would drop me off and let me hang for an hour or two, I gleaned from my keen observation skills that there were three things that you didn’t bring up around Brother Shabazz: 1) “The American Military Industrial Complex” as he called it, 2) White Women and 3) The Hog.

I found out about number three the hard way and in the process learned more than I wanted to know about the ingredients in a lot of the food that I was eating all because I offered Brother Shabazz one of my Gummy Coke bottles. He went on and on about “the hog” - the hog this and the hog that and you gotta keep your eye on the hog.

I’m not sure why those three things set him off like they did.  . The only thing I could figure was that maybe all three had caused him some level of heartache or heartburn at some point in his life. 

He was also kinda touchy when you mentioned certain numbers, but other than that Brother Shabazz was one of the nicest cats you’ll ever meet in your life.

I used to ask him to play me the hip stuff that wasn’t being played on the radio.  He played all kinds of music for me. As I was flipping through the new releases, Brother Shabazz hit me with a news brief.

“Hey, that Brother Morris album I told you about last week will be in here on Friday.  Did you cop the rest of the bread?”

Ironically, Brother Shabazz referred to Stevie Wonder by his government name, Steveland Morris. He told me that his album Innervisions was going to be his best yet and that if I was going to get in on the collecting game that this was the perfect opportunity.

Friday was August 3rd.  Chance and I got paid on Fridays.  This week’s take would take my quarter tally up to 20, giving me the $5.00 that I needed but, wait a minute that wasn’t going to be enough for the tax.

“I’ll have $5.00 on Friday when I collect my fifty cents from my brother Chance, the overseer. That brother got me sharecropping out here.”

I went extra militant hoping that Brother Shabazz would empathize with my struggle.

“But that won’t be enough because of tax will it?”

I slowly morphed from a Stokely Carmichael grimace to Huckleberry Hound’s sad eyes.

Brother Shabazz was behind the elevated counter slapping labels on some records with his price gun. The sun was shining through the plate glass window behind him tattooing the store logo across my chest.

“You just bring me the bread and I’ll deliver the goods, Black Man.”

Wow! Not only was he going to hook me up, but he also called me Black Man!  I was on cloud nine.

A few days later, after copping my two quarters from Chance. I went up to our bedroom - we shared a room - and pulled out the cigar box from the back of my underwear drawer.  I loaded the front pockets of my red Sears Toughskins Jeans with the 18 quarters from the cigar box, making it 20 in total and jingled all the way to the record store and made the first and probably best investment of my life!

When I got home, Chance saw me walk in with the album under my arm. The stereo was in the front room. He and Pops were sitting in the den watching TV.  Moms was in the kitchen.  Chance got up and ran to the front room. I followed behind him not knowing what he was up to.  He grabbed the first record he saw and put it on the turntable.  

“Man, what you are you doing? You see me with my record here.  Why you gotta run in here and put something on?”

Chance smiled at me with that evil grin of his.

“I just felt like listening to some music, that’s all,” he said.

I didn’t feel like arguing with him.  I put my album down and went to the kitchen to get something to drink.  As I headed back to the front room with my glass of grape Kool-Aid I heard,

“Dodo do do do dodo

Do do dodo do dodo

Dodo dodo do do”

That bastard was playing my brand new record.  I didn’t even get to tear off the plastic. That Negro better not had sullied my virgin vinyl with his filthy fingerprints.

Since Pops had the day off, I decided to compose myself and keep my cool.  I didn’t want to get in trouble.

“Why are you playing my record?  Why are you playing records at all.  You don’t even like music.  I know you’re just trying to get me to go off on you so I’l get in trouble.”

“You mean, why am I playing OUR record,” barked Chance.

“What? Man, get out of here with all that.”

“You bought that money with the money that I gave you from Mrs. Shipley.”

“You ain’t gave me nothing.  I earned that money.”

“You ain’t earned nothing.  I gave you the opportunity. So as I see it, the opportunity I gave you is my stake in all that you do with it.  So this record is part mine.”

I was pissed!  I wanted to rip his head off, but knew I couldn’t. I wish I had the words to go off on Chance the way that Brother Shabazz went off on that one cat that came in the store a few weeks back asking if they had that Carly Simon record.

But I kept my cool.  After a while, Chance must have gotten bored, so by the time Living for the City came on he had left the front room.  I stayed in there and listened to the whole album twice before Moms called me into the kitchen for dinner.

The following Tuesday I had hatched a plan to get back at Chance.  I was going to find a way to “earn” my own money from Mrs. Shipley.  That afternoon I walked up to the side porch of her shotgun house and knocked on the screen door.  She and her old raggedy dog came to the door.  She had on an old tattered housecoat with a pastel print that was past its prime, a headscarf and a pair of mismatched open-toed house shoes.  Strands of silver hair looked like they were trying to escape from her head scarf. For a split second, I wondered if Mrs. Shipley was fine back in the day, but then I looked down at her feet and that thought quickly left my mind. Her toenails looked like they should be registered as deadly weapons.  God forbid if she ever accidentally kicked her dog.

“Hey Chance, come on in.”

“How are you today, Mrs. Shipley?”

“Oh I can’t complain and even if I did, who would listen?”

Her dog barked.

“I know. I know. You always listen to me. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you.”

I went straight to the kitchen and gathered up the garbage.  The house smelled like a mixture of Vick’s VapoRub, bacon grease, linseed oil and Purina dog chow.  I pulled the garbage bag out of the can and placed it between my legs.  I reached into the can to retrieve the green twist ties that I left there so I wouldn’t have to search for them.  I ripped one of them away from the pack and then threw the rest back in the can, twisted the tie around the garbage and hauled it out the back door to the alley.

When I got back I put a new garbage bag in the can. As I snapped the bag in the air to open it up, Mrs. Shipley came into to the kitchen. 

Now was my chance.

“Mrs. Shipley, do you have any odd jobs or anything you need done around the house that I can do for you.  I’m trying to earn some extra money so I won’t be such a burden on my parents.  They work so hard. I don’t want them to have to worry about me asking them for extra money.  I wanna earn my own keep.”

She stood there for a moment and then smiled. 

“That’s so honorable of you young man.”  She paused again.  She looked as if she was either deep in thought or if she had all of a sudden forgotten that I was even there. I didn’t want to make any sudden movements in case it was the latter. I can’t have scaring an old lady to death on my resume.

“You know what, my nephew usually comes by to rake the leaves, but he hasn’t been by lately.  If you want you can rake up the leaves in the backyard.  It’s a really big job but if you think you’re up to it then I can pay you two dollars.”

Two whole dollars.  Hell yeah!!!

That’s what I was thinking, but what I actually said was, “It would be my honor ma’am and no it’s not too big of a job.  I’ll come by tomorrow if that’s OK.”

“Fine with me,” she said.

The next day I waited until Chance was deep into watching television. I snuck out across the street to earn my two bucks.  I also had to sneak Chance’s jacket out of our room to keep the dog from dimeing me out.  It took me two whole hours to rake all of those leaves.  By the time I was finished I was beat.  I took my two dollars and went to Sam’s corner store and bought me a Big Red cream soda. I asked Sam to give me change for my other dollar too.  I took all my coins and put them in my cigar box.

Over the next few weeks I was able to do a few odd jobs here and there for Mrs. Shipley. The tables had turned.  Chance was breaking me off fifty cents a week, but I was earning at least another dollar on top of that on my own.  I was saving my money so I could buy more records from Brother Shabazz.

Whenever Brother Shabazz would tell me about some new album or play something hip for me I would write the album or the single down on a piece of paper and put it in my cigar box along with the price.  That was my way of motivating myself.

One day in the fall, I went into the record store and Brother Shabazz was playing one of the funkiest songs I had ever heard before.  It was an instrumental.

“What is that Brother Shabazz.  That’s funky.”

“That’s Brother Herbert,” he said.

“Who?” I asked.

“Herbie Hancock. That’s his new album Headhunters.”

What’s the name of that tune?”

Chameleon.”

It was super funky.  It was hypnotic.  As I listened to it, I couldn’t help but do a little jig right there on the floor as my fingers were flipping through the album covers in the J-K section.  The bass line sounded like an electric bass and an electric piano had had a baby and the parents had joint custody.

The next tune Watermelon Man came on. The beginning of the song sounded like an owl warming up for vocal lessons with Phillip Bailey all of a sudden got the hiccups.  I had never heard anything like that before in my life.  I was smitten.  I was all in!

“Brother Shabazz, can you put one of those aside for me.  I’ll be back in next week to cop it.”

“No problem Black Man.  You’re starting to amass quite the collection there my Brother.”

“All thanks to you. Black Man!” I signified

I went back home and checked my cigar box. The box was stashed on the wrong side of the drawer. If Mrs. Shipley didn’t have any odd jobs for me, I’d have the bread to get the album by next Friday from the regular garbage detail.  I tore off a small piece of paper from my notebook and wrote, “Headhunters - Chameleon and Watermelon Man -  $5” on it and slid it into the box. I then placed it in the back of my drawer in its proper place.

That Thursday when it was time to take out Mrs. Shipley’s garbage, I couldn’t find Chance’s jacket.  I searched everywhere but it was nowhere to be found.  So I grabbed one of his dirty T-shirts out of the hamper instead and headed across the street.

When I got to the side of her house, Chance was standing on the porch about to knock on the door.  He had his jacket on.  He heard me walk up and turned around.

“Oh hey, what’s up.  Listen, I won’t be needing your services anymore.”

“I don’t mind doing it,” I said.

“No it’s cool.  I got it from here,” he replied.

Chance was being nice.  That was so unlike him.

I was disappointed, but all good things come to an end.  I turned around to head back home when Chance called me back.

“Hey, come here.”

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a sleeve of Now & Laters.

“You want one?”

Chance never shared his candy with me. I mean NEVER.

I was pleasantly surprised and wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth.

“Sure,” I said. 

I climbed the one step to join him on the porch.

He flicked a single candy apple green square into my hand.

“Too bad it ain’t Watermelon, Man. I know how much you dig that.” Chance slapped his left knees as they both buckled. He folded at the waist and enjoyed a silent full belly laugh.

After a few seconds, he composed himself. He stood up straight and then quickly glanced back at me with that evil grin of his before knocking on the screen door.


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